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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 16, 2007

California adopts 10 percent ethanol blend, major boost to biofuels

Gasoline sold in California will include up to 10 percent ethanol, state air managers have decided, a move the renewable fuels industry says will shift the burgeoning ethanol market into high gear. California is the world's fifth largest economy and the largest consumer of transport fuels in the United States.

The California Air Resources Board adopted a resolution updating the predictive model for gasoline reformulation. All California refineries making gas sold in the state will have to blend 10 percent ethanol into their gas to meet new fuel standards set by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger starting Dec. 31, 2009.
Today's decision by the Air Resources Board is an important step toward diversifying California's fuel supply with alternative and, in this instance, renewable fuels. While many alternative fuels exist in the market, ethanol is one that can be blended into today's gasoline with no change to our current cars. This action allows fuel providers to blend up to 10 percent ethanol into gasoline, while still ensuring we're meeting California's tough air quality standards. - California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
Industry groups said the ruling will almost double demand for the biofuel in California, which last year used about 1 billion gallons (3.8 billion liters) of ethanol, or nearly one-fifth of the total consumed across the United States.

Blending more ethanol into gasoline will improve air quality in California and reduce dependency on foreign oil. The decision blends in with Governor's Schwarzenegger's Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) executive order. The goal of the LCFS is to ensure that the mix of fuel sold in California market deliver, on average, lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By 2020, the LCFS is expected to produce at least a 10 percent reduction in the carbon content, replace 20 percent of all on-road fuels with lower carbon alternatives, and more than triple the size of the state's renewable fuels market.

Boost to biofuels market
"Once the market starts to fall in line like this, it shows the demand is there and is growing," said Bruce Scherr, CEO of Informa Economics Inc., a Memphis-based consulting firm specializing in renewable fuels. A handful of other states - including Connecticut, Minnesota and Hawaii - have mandates for the use of 10 percent ethanol, or E-10, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

A surge in demand will be created as large states like California, Texas and New York roll out legislation forcing gas stations to sell a more environmentally friendly mix, analysts said. That growth is aided by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which gives small refiners a federal tax credit for using the biofuel:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"While many alternative fuels exist in the market, ethanol is one that can be blended into today's gasoline with no change to our current cars," Schwarzenegger commented. "It is critical that government continue reducing barriers so that alternative fuels can increasingly penetrate our transportation fuels markets.

If refineries still cannot meet clean air standards with 10 percent ethanol in their fuel mix, they can reduce emissions from other sources by donating money to programs that take polluting vehicles off the road, among other alternatives, said board spokesman Dimitri Stanich.

California's decision may have an impact on global ethanol producers like Brazil and other countries in Latin America, who export to the United States. The biofuels they produce are more efficient and less costly than corn based ethanol, the main biofuel used today in the U.S. In March, the United States and Brazil signed a biofuels cooperation agreement, but President Lula did not succeed in making the US abandon its US$0.54/gallon tariff on imported ethanol (earlier post).

In March, the United States imported 629,000 barrels of ethanol mainly from Latin America (previous post).

More information:
California Environmental Protection Agency, Air Resources Board: Groundwork Begun for Greater Use of Ethanol in California's Gasoline - June 15, 2007.

USNewswire: Gov. Schwarzenegger Issues Statement on Air Resources Board's Adoption of Measure in Support of Ethanol, Renewable Transportation Fuel - June 15, 2007.

California Renewable Fuels Partnership

Article continues

UK's largest biomass plant approved, biomass task force created

Scotland's Environment Minister Mike Russell has announced plans to boost wood supplies for renewable energy production at a plant in Lockerbie and throughout Scotland. He unveiled proposals to set up an industry-wide task force to tackle the issue when he visited the biomass station at Steven's Croft. Meanwhile, farmers in southern Scotland have become aware of the bright prospects for bioenergy and have begun turning over large slices of their land to growing willow, a short rotation coppice energy crop.

The new biomass project is the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom. The £90 (€133/US$178) million E.ON facility is expected to be fully operational by the end of the year. It will be capable of performing the following tasks:
  • generating enough electricity to power 70,000 homes
  • providing over 300 jobs in the forestry and energy farming sector
  • displacing the emission of 140,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases each year
E.ON operates three coal fired power stations in the UK (Ratcliffe, Kingsnorth and Ironbridge), and in al three of them biomass is co-fired. The type of fuels that are being burnt include cereal pellets, olive cakes and wood.

According to the recently published UK Biomass Strategy (earlier post), the total amount of wood available to England, Scotland and Wales for use as fuel is set to increase by 55% over the next decade, from 1.1million oven dry tonnes to 1.7million oven dry tonnes.

Task force
The new biomass plant is one of a number of green power projects across Scotland which are fuelled by wood. The increasing demand for timber supplies has prompted Mr Russell to examine how to meet the future needs of the sector. The Minister announced plans for the Forestry Commission Scotland to lead an industry task force to work to balance supply and demand in the long term.

The new task force will consider ways of bringing forward supplies from currently under-utilised sources such as forest residues, short rotation coppice and under-managed woodlands. It will also consider the impact of increased demand for wood fuel on the future balance between supply and demand within the wood processing sector:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The task force will be led by Forestry Commission Scotland and will include representatives from the renewable energy, wood processing and land management sectors.

The announcement was made during a visit to E.ON's £90 million biomass plant in Lockerbie, the largest of its kind in the UK. Currently, E.ON expects to begin testing the plant after the summer and commission the station by the turn of the year. Overall,

The Forestry Commission Scotland has a number of woodfuel officers around the country who are working with a range of organisations to help develop and demonstrate the benefits of changing to wood fired systems. Already, the Commission has been helping both small and large scale woodfuel projects get under way and by next year is expected to be supplying well over 100,000 tonnes of material for woodfuel. Forestry Commission Scotland also has a contract to provide timber to the woodfuel supplier for the E.ON plant.

Head of Construction at E.ON Adrian Chatterton said “We were delighted to welcome the Minister to Steven’s Croft. When we commission the plant later this year it will be a flagship addition to our fleet.”

During Mr Russell's visit to the area he saw the whole woodfuel process in action from harvesting the timber through to the processing of it at James Jones before it is moved on to the E.ON plant. He also stopped in at the Barony College to discuss forestry training issues.

The Forestry Commission Scotland serves as the Scottish Government's forestry department. It manages 668,000 hectares of national forest land for multiple benefits, including nature conservation, public recreation, timber production, and rural and community development; supports other woodland owners with grants, felling licences, advice and regulation; promotes the benefits of forests and forestry; and advises Ministers on forestry policy.

E.ON is the UK's largest integrated power and gas company - generating, distributing and retailing electricity - and is part of the E.ON group, the world's largest investor-owned power and gas company. It employs around 16,000 people in the UK. E.ON is one of the leading green generators with 20 wind farms located from Cornwall to Northern Ireland. Two of their power stations burn biomass material with the new Steven’s Croft plant set to be the largest of its kind in the UK.

Becoming energy farmers
Given the growing interest for bioenergy, farmers across southern Scotland have already been turning over large slices of their land to growing willow. It is hoped much of it will eventually be used as fuel for the Steven's Croft biomass power station which is nearing completion outside Lockerbie.

The plant requires 220,000 tonnes of fuel a year and it is hoped local willow can provide about 45,000 tonnes.

The latest sowing of the willow crop has been at a six-and-a-half hectare field at Dalscone Farm in Dumfries and more is due to be planted shortly at Stranraer, Kilmarnock and Lockerbie.

Renewable Fuels, the company growing and supplying harvested willow for the station, is expanding its programme for developing energy crop production in Scotland. Contracts manager John Farrell said there was an increasing awareness of the revenue potential of the crop.

Increasingly popular
"Farmers in Dumfries and Galloway are becoming interested and we have already planted in four areas of the south west this spring and several more are in line," he said. A spokesman for the National Union of Farmers Scotland in Dumfries said he was aware that willow was becoming more popular.

"There is potential there and there are certainly fields about the Lockerbie area where it is in," he said. "The siting of the plant in Lockerbie has encouraged some people to try and diversify into that area."

Image 1: simulation of the proposed E.ON plant in Lockerbie. Credit: E.ON.
Image 2: farmers in Scotland have taken up planting short rotation coppice like willow. Credit: BBC.

More information:
Forestry Commission: Minister announces wood fuel task force - June 15, 2007.

E.ON UK: Biomass page.

BBC: Farmers speculate on biomass boom - June 15, 2007.

Article continues

Friday, June 15, 2007

Mediterranean countries face dangerous increases in heat stress, if GHG emissions are not reduced

A a team of researchers from the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (Trieste, Italy) projects a 200 percent to 500 percent increase in the number of dangerously hot days in the Mediterranean by the end of the 21st century if the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions continues. The study found France would be subjected to the largest projected increase of high-temperature extremes.

The analysis also shows a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could reduce the intensification of dangerously hot days projected in the scenario by up to 50 percent. The research covered the entire Mediterranean area, which includes 21 countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. Major cities covered in the study include: Prague, Zurich, Bucharest, Athens, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Algiers and Casablanca.

The results of the study have been published in the June 15 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.
"Rare events today, like the 2003 heat wave in Europe, will become much more common as greenhouse gas concentrations increase. The frequency at which that scale of event occurs at high greenhouse gas concentrations is staggering. Rare events become the norm, and the extreme events of the future are unprecedented in their severity." - Noah Diffenbaugh, lead author, Purdue assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences
Impacts on health, energy, agriculture, water, economy
A 2003 heat wave led to 15,000 deaths in France and almost 3,000 in Italy. The researchers found that global warming causes summer temperatures to dramatically exceed the range that was correlated with the increased number of deaths.

The thresholds of the 2003 event are substantially exceeded in the future in both of the research scenarios that were created (image, click to enlarge), says Diffenbaugh, who is a member of Purdue's Climate Change Research Center. The research is about understanding the response to different emissions levels. It finds that decreases in greenhouse gas emissions greatly reduce the impact, but also sees negative effects even with reduced emissions. Technological and behavioral changes that are made now will have a big influence on what actually happens in the future.

In addition to the human health risks, extremely high temperatures could impact the economy of this region, which includes metropolitan areas such as Rome, Paris and Barcelona, says Jeremy Pal, co-researcher and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Loyola Marymount University:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

When high temperature extremes increase, it could have significant negative impacts on human health, water resources, agriculture and energy demand.

In addition to Diffenbaugh and Pal, Filippo Giorgi of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics and Xuejie Gao of the National Climate Center in Beijing are co-authors of the paper. The researchers used a supercomputer in the National Climate Center in Beijing to run the climate model.

High resolution model
The model offers a resolution of 20 kilometers, about 12.5 miles, and is believed to have the highest spatial resolution available for the Mediterranean region. Much like increased resolution in a photo makes a clearer picture and allows one to zoom in without blurring the image, the powerful resolution of the climate model allows researchers to gather detailed information about particular areas.

Giorgi, who is head of the Earth System Physics Section of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, said the Mediterranean is of interest because it is one of the most susceptible areas to climate changes - both climatically and socially.

"In the global warming scenario, there is more warming and drying in the Mediterranean than in other regions of the world, which makes the Mediterranean a climate change 'hotspot,'" Giorgi said. "The Mediterranean also is a very vulnerable region to climate change in terms of the impacts to the way of life of those who live there."

The researchers found that this warming and reduced precipitation contribute to a preferential warming of the hottest days of the year.

"We found that the hottest days of the year, or the 'hot tail,' warm more than the typical summer days warm," Diffenbaugh said. "One might expect that an average warming of four degrees would equate to each day warming by four degrees, but in fact the hottest days warm quite a bit more."

This is due, in large part, to a surface moisture feedback. The surface gets dryer as it gets hotter and the dry soil leads to less moisture in the area and less evaporative cooling. The locations of intensified warming on hottest days of the year matched the locations where surface drying occurred, Diffenbaugh said.

With the projected shift to more severe temperatures, the daily temperatures currently found in the hottest two weeks of the summer instead are found in the coldest two weeks of the summer in the future climate scenario, Diffenbaugh said.

Hot to become 'normal'
"The hottest temperatures we are used to experiencing will become the normal temperatures of the summer, and the hot periods will be magnified," Diffenbaugh said. "Take Paris: If we look at the temperatures that occurred there during the heat wave in 2003, when 15,000 people died, those temperatures are exceeded a couple dozen times every year in the future projection. That means that severe heat waves, such as those rare events that have occurred in the past couple of years, are likely to become far more common."

The study used the National Weather Service Heat Index in the analysis of the heat stress response to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. The researchers found that areas most likely to face substantial increases in the dangerous heat index were concentrated largely in coastal areas.

"Coastal regions were more affected than inland regions, which is of particular importance because many large cities in the Mediterranean are on the coast," Giorgi said. "This is the first time this amplification signal over coastal areas could be seen and quantified. Coastal regions are particularly vulnerable because they will likely be affected by other important climate change related stresses, such as a rising sea level."

Diffenbaugh said without the high resolution of the climate model, the researchers would not have been able to identify the coastal effects.

"This underscores the importance of advancing our technology and examining a number of scenarios in great detail," he said. "If we want to quantify the risks associated with climate change, it is critical to understand the local and regional impacts as well as the global impacts."

For the study's standard future scenario, the research group used a commonly accepted emissions scenario from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that assumes greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase exponentially. The reduced emissions scenario incorporated a reduction in population growth and greater environmental concern, Diffenbaugh said.

The researchers are currently using the high-resolution model to further evaluate the effects that increased temperatures and surface drying could have on agriculture and energy and water resources.

Image: heat stress in the 21st century for two greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. The top panel shows the expected intensification of the severity of extreme hot days given accelerating increases in greenhouse gas concentrations. The bottom panel shows the expected decrease in intensification associated with decelerated increases in greenhouse gas concentrations. Credit: Purdue University image/Diffenbaugh Laboratory.

More information:
Noah S. Diffenbaugh, Jeremy S. Pal, Filippo Giorgi, Xuejie Gao, "Heat stress intensification in the Mediterranean climate change hotspot" [*abstract], Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 34, L11706, doi:10.1029/2007GL030000, published June 15, 2007.

Purdue University: Reduced greenhouse gas emissions required to avoid dangerous increases in heat stress, researchers say - June 14, 2007.

Article continues

Chinese group to build three ethanol plants in the Philippines

Investments in the Philippines' biofuels industry are speeding up. The country has been identified by consultants as one of the countries in the South that both have the agro-ecological resources (land, climate, suitable crops) and the right the social, economic and policy frameworks as well as an excellent geographic location needed to become a highly successful biofuel production center that can supply East Asia (earlier post).

For this reason, a growing number of companies from Asia (especially China and Japan) and the US are establishing energy plantations and biofuel plants in the island state, often teaming up with local companies and farmers. The latest in the series is Nanning Yong Kai Industry Group Co Ltd, a Chinese agricultural firm that will spend a total of US$105 million to build three ethanol refineries in partnership with three Philippine companies, official documents from the agriculture department show.

The company will start work on the refineries this year, with the three facilities expected to be completed in 18 to 24 months, according to documents obtained by reporters from the Philippine Agriculture Department.

The three ethanol plants would be built at a cost of US$35 million each, making it medium scale plants with a capacity of 150,000 liters per day. Feedstocks will be cassava and sugarcane . The Chinese firm has signed agreements with two agricultural firms based in southern Negros Occidental province, namely BM SB Integrated Biofuels Co and Negros Southern Integrated Biofuels for the production of ethanol:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Nanning Yong Kai also signed a separate agreement with One Cagayan Resource Development Inc based in northen Cagayan Valley province. Under the deal, One Cagayan would provide the land and cultivate sugar cane or cassava which would be converted into ethanol at the new facility to be built by Nanning, which has a production capacity of not less than 150,000 liters per day.

There has been a rush to build ethanol facilities after the Philippines’ biofuels law took effect in May. The law requires a 1 per cent ethanol blend in diesel, while gasoline should have a 5 per cent blend within two years. The mandated ethanol blend will increase to 10 per cent after four year.

Amongst the most recent investors are Japan's Cosmo Oil (earlier post), Eastern Petroleum Corp. which teamed up with Guanxi Group of China for an ethanol project using cassava as feedstock while PNOC-Alternative Fuels Corp. is planning an ethanol plant project worth US$ 1.3 billion (on Chinese investments, see here, on PNOC's biofuel activities, here).

US firm E-Cane Fuel Corp. recently entered the sector by investing €111/US$150 million to put up a fully integrated ethanol processing facility in Central Luzon based on sugarcane (previous post).

And the latest in the series is the joint FE Global/Asia Clean Energy Services Fund L.P. and FEGACE Asia Sub-Fund L.P. investment in Biofuels Resources Inc. (BRI). The Funds will investwith BronzeOak Philippines Inc. in a series of four special purpose companies focused on ethanol production in the Philippines.

San Carlos Bioethanol Inc. is the first in this series of investments. The project will produce and sell 125,000 liters of ethanol daily, using sugar cane juice from local growers as a raw material. One of the most interesting aspects of the project relates to the project’s use of contracts with multiple sugar cane suppliers to secure a stable price for approximately 50% of the raw material needs of the plant.

Article continues

South African algae biofuels company breaks down

Over the long to very long term, algae may offer an interesting potential for the production of biomass and biofuels. But much fundamental research is first needed to make algaeculture systems competitive and feasible, with some estimating that costs will have to come down 20 times before algae can compete with ordinary biofuels. Since algae research programs were discontinued in the early 1990s, no major biotech or engineering breakthroughs have been made in the sector, so we must assume that algal biomass yields remain the same as at that time, that is, between 30 and 50 tonnes per hectare - below the productivity of most tropical terrestrial crops (earlier post).

However, many entrepreneurs have quickly established algae companies, hoping they could profit from the hype that surrounds the technology. They have acquired the questionable habit of distributing optimistic but unsubstantiated press releases full of absurd yield projections. Very few of these companies have demonstrated their technologies (the ones that have used photobioreactors, which many researchers have dismissed as unfeasible because way too costly). None of the companies has ever shown a large-scale working system based on open ponds (the only system thought to have a future). And with all of them, yield projections are up to 100 times those of actual results obtained in field trials. In short, a hype has been created around algae that has not the slightest basis in science and reality.

With this background in mind, it does not come as a surprise that investors from South Africa feel betrayed by one such an algae company that kept issueing press releases with false numbers and that created absurd expectations. The virtual collapse of De Beers Fuel (no connection with the diamond-mining giant), which had promised South Africa vast quantities of cheap biodiesel produced from algae, has left a stink in the biofuels industry there.

The company had teamed up with US-based GreenFuel Technology - another algae company - whose technology it licensed. But in what is a blow to the algae hype, the licensing agreement has been terminated owing to “nonperformance” by De Beers.

The algae company was recently 'exposed' by an investigative programme as a scam (earlier post) and Engineering News now finds that investors in the company, who invested up to 6 million Rand each in biodiesel plants, in what was trumpeted to be the world’s first fuel-franchising scheme, today have nothing but paper to show for their money. Not one plant has been built and the company has been spewing fake numbers on the technology's potential and outright false statements about its order book:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The amount of money lost by investors, and the number of investors who have lost money, could not be determined owing to conflicting information on the value and number of plants sold.

De Beers Fuel marketed the concept under the Infiniti Biodiesel brand name. Shareholders were promised plants capable of producing tens of thousands of litres of biodiesel every day, and exclusive offset areas. These plants would initially process conventional vegetable oils, like sunflower oil.

However, from the company’s public launch onwards, a more exciting, if somewhat strange, source of alternative feedstock was punted – algae. De Beers Fuel started a relationship with Green- Fuel Technology Corporation, of the US, which had been working on the development of a strain of algae suited to the production of biofuels.

One of the founders of GreenFuel Technology, Dr Isaac Berzin, researched the use of algae on the International Space Station and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Berzin and GreenFuel Technology inter- national MD Paul Rodzianko visited South Africa in November.

De Beers Fuel founder Frik de Beer and adviser to the company’s board, Hendy Schoon-bee, sang the praises of algae as a feedstock for biofuels production during a media visit to the company’s demonstration algae bioreactor in Mookgopong (formerly Naboomspruit), which coincided with Berzin and Rodzianko’s visit.

Also accompanying the group was Stretch Fowler, of Green Star Products, the US company contracted by De Beers to build 90 high-pressure biodiesel reactors, and Matthias Wackerbauer, of MWK Biogas, of Germany.

The experts expanded on the potential of algae technology to provide large volumes of algae feedstock for biofuels production in South Africa. The fact that De Beers was the first company to receive a licence for commercial biofuels production from the South African Revenue Service was also mentioned frequently.

At the time of the visit, the media was told about De Beers Fuel’s ambitious plans to produce feedstock for between 16-billion litres and 24-billion litres of biofuels a year.

Moreover, by enabling the propagation of large volumes of relatively cheap renewable algae feedstock, De Beers would limit the use of food-crop feedstocks, such as sunflower and soy, in local biofuels production.

Besides giving South Africa biofuels, algae technology would consume carbon dioxide, as algae depended on large amounts of carbon dioxide for its rapid growth. Plans were made known to deploy a fuel- assessment unit at the Kelvin power station, in Johannesburg.

The technology would also be tested in other locations in South Africa. To prove De Beers’ abilities, visitors were shown a production plant that, according to De Beer, produced 144,000 liters/day of biodiesel and was being run 25 days a month, and had 50-million litres of diesel on its order book every month.

However, on April 1, popular investigative programme Carte Blanche ‘exposed’ the company when it aired a programme on De Beers Fuel. When questioned by Carte Blanche, De Beer said that the company had only sold 41,000 liters of biodiesel and had 39,000 liters in its tanks, ready to be sold.

And, while investors in De Beers and Infiniti Biodiesel were given the impression that algae was an almost immediate solution to the antici- pated shortage of vegetable oil for biofuels production, in truth, the production of algae feedstock is viewed as a third-generation technology.

Rodzianko then said that, “on an accelerated schedule, the earliest that a commercial-scale facility would be available [would] probably be the end of next year, to the beginning of 2009”.

Even after being exposed, De Beers continued to publish on its website unrealistic claims about its abilities. The company also continued to point out its relationship with GreenFuel Technology, which had received the prestigious Frost and Sullivan technology innovation award of the year.

GreenFuel has since terminated the licensing agreement with De Beers Fuel owing to “nonperformance”. It also requested that the company remove any reference to the agreement from its website.

Article continues

Scientists debate benefits of low-input high-diversity grassland bioenergy systems

An interesting technical exchange on bioenergy production systems is underway in the top journal Science. Late last year a team of ecologists led by David Tilman, Regents Professor of Ecology in the University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences, described a biofuel production system based on polycultures of multiple grass species that can be carbon-negative and may provide a substantial portion of global energy needs in a sustainable and environmentally beneficial manner without competing with food production for fertile lands (earlier post). The system is diametrically opposed to that of monocultures such as corn.

The authors argued that such a 'Low-Input High-Diversity (LIHD)' grassland biomass system needed far less inputs (fertilizers, water) and is far more environmentally benign than monocultures of corn. Moreover, it can be established on degraded land, of which some 710 million hectares are available for biofuel production. In total, roughly a seventh of the world's transportation and electricity needs could be met with such a system on degraded lands.

Another group of researchers led by Michael P. Russelle, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, defends the corn system and recently disputed Tilman's conclusions arguing they were not substantiated by the experimental protocol. According to Russelle's team, Tilman's group understated the management inputs required to establish prairies, extrapolated globally from site-specific results, and presented potentially misleading energy accounting.

Now, Tilman's team replies, defending the research.
Russelle's group raises several technical concerns that lead them to question our conclusions about the energetic and environmental advantages of biofuels derived from diverse mixtures of native perennial prairie plant species over biofuels from high-input annual food crops such as corn. The nature of their comments suggests that research results well known in ecology may be less familiar to those outside the discipline. Indeed, our approach stands in marked contrast to that of conventional high-input agriculture. Each of their concerns, addressed below, is refuted by published studies of the ecology of high-diversity grasslands, and none of them has substantive effect on our original conclusions.
Nutrient inputs
Russelle's team questions the ability of low-input high-diversity (LIHD) prairie biomass to grow sustainably with low nutrient inputs. U.S. corn, in contrast, requires substantial inputs: 148 kg/ha of nitrogen, 23 kg/ha of phosphorus, and 50 kg/ha of potassium annually.

Leaching and erosional nutrient losses are much lower for perennial grasslands than for annually tilled row crops such as corn; hence, much lower inputs are needed. Moreover, Tilman recommended harvesting prairie biomass when senescent in late autumn because this would "both yield greater biomass and decrease ecosystem loss of N, P, and other nutrients".

Replacing nutrients removed by harvesting would require about 4 kg/ha of P and 6 kg/ha of K, should they be limiting. LIHD mixtures needed no N fertilization because N fixation by legumes more than compensated for N exports in harvested biomass. Also, unlike some cultivated legumes, native legumes grow well and fix N on acidic soils without liming.

Moreover, several studies have shown that biomass yields of high-diversity grasslands are sustainable with low inputs. Annual hay yields from high-diversity Kansas prairie showed no declines over 55 years despite no fertilization. Similarly, hay yields increased slightly during 150 years of twice-annual biomass removal in high-diversity unfertilized plots of the Park Grass experiment. In total, nutrient inputs sufficient to sustain LIHD biomass production are an order of magnitude lower than for corn.

Carbon sequestration
Tilman says his team showed that the dense root mass of LIHD prairie led to high rates of soil carbon sequestration. Russelle's team expresses concern that fire may have caused carbon storage through charcoal formation. However, published studies show that annual accumulation of charcoal carbon in frequently burned grasslands was smaller than 1% of the observed rate of soil carbon accumulation. Similarly, fire had no effect on soil black carbon levels in a 6-year study of mixed-grass savanna. The concern about effects of late autumn mowing versus burning is also unfounded. Annual mowing and burning have similar effects on prairie biomass production, and mowing does not cause prairie yields to decrease:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Resistance to invaders and disease
Tilman's group proposed using mixtures of native prairie perennials for biofuels in part because, contrary to the assertion of Russelle, such mixtures are easily established and require low or no inputs for maintenance. Indeed, prairie readily reestablishes itself from seed and displaces exotic plant species during natural succession on many degraded agricultural lands in the Great Plains. Prairie restoration, such as on the 6000 ha restored recently in Minnesota by The Nature Conservancy, is performed using agricultural machinery, not manual labor as Russelle et al. suggest. Our hand-weeding was done to maintain monoculture and low-diversity treatments. In contrast, the LIHD treatment led to rapid competitive displacement of exotic weedy and pasture species. LIHD plots were strikingly resistant to subsequent plant invasion and disease. In portions of LIHD plots for which weeding had been stopped for 3 years, only 1.7% of total biomass came from invaders, which themselves were mainly native prairie perennials, and this invasion did not impact energy production.

Global production potential

Tilman's one-sentence on the "rough global estimate" of the energy LIHD biomass might potentially provide was brief, but well-supported and conservative. As to his estimated land base, 9 x 108 ha of global agricultural lands have been degraded so as to have "great reductions" in agricultural productivity, and an additional 3 x 108 ha are "severely degraded" and offer no agricultural utility. A review of 17 studies found a median value of 710 million ha of degraded land available globally for biofuel production. Tilman's suggestion of 5 x 108 ha is 30% lower and is therefore a conservative estimate.

In the Tilman experiment, severely degraded land planted to LIHD mixtures had biomass production that was 46% as much as its native biome, temperate grassland. To be conservative, they assumed that LIHD mixtures of native species planted on degraded land would produce 20% less than they observed, i.e., just 37% of the average of its native biome. Weighting this LIHD production estimate by the global area for each biome produced our estimate of 90 GJ ha–1 year–1 globally and of degraded lands potentially providing—through the integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC)/Fischer-Tropsch process — about one-seventh of the global transportation and electricity demand. Tilman's group says they stand by that estimate. Further, they urge that the energy and carbon sequestration potential of low-input high-diversity mixtures of locally native plant species be explored for degraded lands around the world.

Tilman's energy accounting was thorough and correct, the group says. They reported actual energy balances for U.S. corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel as currently produced (both of which cause net increases in greenhouse gases), and compared them to three ways that LIHD prairie biomass might be used to produce carbon-negative biofuels (i.e., biofuels that, in total for their life cycle, decrease greenhouse gas levels). They showed that these new carbon-negative biofuels could provide similar or greater net energy gains per hectare than current biofuels.

The concerns of Russelle et al. are refuted by a thorough consideration of the published literature. As to current biofuels, we agree that the energy and greenhouse gas benefits of corn ethanol could be improved, but we disagree about methods. First, burning the high-protein co-product of corn ethanol production to power ethanol production facilities, as Russelle et al. suggest, seems unwise because greater protein production is required to meet global nutritional needs. Burning this protein is not an industry standard, nor is it discussed in any recent ethanol energy balance reviews. Second, harvest and use of corn stover (the senescent stalks and leaves of corn plants) to power ethanol plants would likely cause soil organic carbon levels to fall, and increase both carbon dioxide release and soil erosion. A better alternative would be powering corn ethanol plants with LIHD biomass, likely by gasification. If done properly, the ethanol produced could be carbon-neutral and have a markedly higher net energy gain than current corn ethanol.

Tilman's group concludes:
The world's energy and climate problems are likely to be solved only by a combination of approaches and technologies, including wind and solar energy, increased energy efficiency, and renewable biofuels. Our research found that biofuels from LIHD biomass grown on degraded lands have substantial energy and greenhouse gas advantages over current U.S. biofuels. Moreover, LIHD production of renewable energy on agriculturally marginal lands could help ameliorate what might otherwise be an escalating conflict between food production, bioenergy production, and preservation of the world's remaining natural ecosystems. LIHD biofuels merit further exploration.

Image: test plot of mixed prairie grasses. Credit: Cedar Creek LTER Site.
More information:
The discussion is published in two access articles in Science:

David Tilman, Jason Hill and Clarence Lehman, "Response to Comment on 'Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass'", Science 15 June 2007, Vol. 316. no. 5831, p. 1567, DOI: 10.1126/science.1140365

Michael P. Russelle, R. Vance Morey, John M. Baker, Paul M. Porter, Hans-Joachim G. Jung, "Comment on 'Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass'", Science 15 June 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5831, p. 1567, DOI: 10.1126/science.1139388

The original study
David Tilman, Jason Hill and Clarence Lehman, "Carbon-Negative Biofuels from Low-Input High-Diversity Grassland Biomass" [*.abstract], Science 8 December 2006: Vol. 314. no. 5805, pp. 1598 - 1600, DOI: 10.1126/science.1133306

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EU greenhouse gas emissions decreased 0.8% in 2005

Emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases (GHG) decreased between 2004 and 2005, according to the annual GHG inventory report of the European Community prepared by the European Environment Agency (EEA), in Copenhagen. The report, 'Annual European Community Greenhouse gas inventory 1990-2005 and inventory report 2007', was submitted to the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as the European Community's official submission. The EEA released the main, preliminary, messages of the report in May 2007 because of public and political interest in the issue of climate change. The final version of this report was submitted to the UNFCCC on 27 May 2007.

Interactive GHG dataviewers allow the user to compile and compare emissions data per sector and per country over a given time-frame.

The key points of the final report are:
  • EU-15: Emissions of GHGs decreased by 0.8% (35.2 million tonnes CO2 equivalents) between 2004 and 2005 - mainly due to decreasing CO2 emissions of 0.7 % (26 million tonnes).
  • EU-15: Emissions of GHGs decreased by 2.0% in 2005 compared to the base year under the Kyoto Protocol (graph, click to enlarge).
  • EU-15: Emissions of GHGs decreased by 1.5% between 1990 and 2005
  • EU-27: Emissions of GHGs decreased by 0.7% (37.9 million tonnes CO2 equivalents) between 2004 and 2005
  • EU-27: Emissions of GHGs decreased by 7.9% compared to 1990 levels
The EU-15 consists of countries from Western Europe, the EU-27 includes the new member-states from Eastern Europe.

Emissions per sector
In absolute terms, the main sectors contributing to emissions reductions between 2004 and 2005 in the EU-15 were public electricity and heat production, households and services, and road transport.
  • CO2 emissions from public electricity and heat production decreased by 0.9% (-9.6 million tonnes) mainly due to a reduction in the reliance on coal.
  • CO2 emissions from households and services decreased by 1.7 % (7.0 million tonnes). Important decreases in emissions from household and services were reported by Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. One general reason for the decrease is the warmer weather conditions (milder winter) compared to the previous year.
  • CO2 emissions from road transport decreased by 0.8% (6 million tonnes). This is mainly attributed to Germany, and is due to increased amounts of diesel oil driven cars, the effects of the eco-tax and fuel buying from outside Germany (fuel tourism).
Emissions per country
In absolute terms, Spain increased greenhouse gas emissions the most between 2004 and 2005.

In Spain, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 3.6% or 15.4 million tonnes CO2 equivalents came mainly from public electricity and heat production. This is due to a rise in electricity generation from fossil thermal power stations (17 %) and a decrease in electricity generation from hydropower plants (-33 %).

Other EU-15 countries which saw emissions increase between 2004 and 2005 are: Austria, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Portugal:
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Role of the EU Emission Trading Scheme
In 2005 the EU Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS) covered approximately 47% of the total CO2 emissions and around 39% of total greenhouse gas emissions in EU-15. The EU ETS covered 49% of the total CO2 emission and 41% of total greenhouse gas emissions in EU-25. In general, EU ETS information has been used by EU Member States as one input for calculating total CO2 emissions for the Energy and Industrial Processes sectors in this report. However, an explicit quantification of the contribution of the EU ETS to total CO2 emissions at sectoral and sub-sectoral level is not yet available for EU-15 or EU-25.

Significance for Kyoto Protocol obligations

The EU-15 has a common target under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 8 %, compared to the base year. The EU-27 does not have a common Kyoto target. Official reporting of emissions for compliance purposes under the Kyoto Protocol does not begin until 2010 – when emissions will be reported for the year 2008. In the meantime, this report is the most relevant and accurate source of information on greenhouse gas emissions for the EU. It can be used for tracking the EU's performance when it comes to reducing domestic greenhouse emissions (i.e. emissions within its territory) towards meeting the Kyoto targets. Parties to the Kyoto Protocol are allowed to use carbon sinks as well as the so called 'flexible mechanisms' to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions outside their national territories - as a supplement to domestic reductions. Hence, domestic action is the primary method of achieving the Kyoto targets. This inventory report suggests that domestic emissions of GHGs decreased by approximately 2.0 % compared to the base year under the Kyoto Protocol.

More information:
European Environment Agency: Annual European Community greenhouse gas inventory 1990-2005 and inventory report 2007, Technical report No 7/2007, June 17, 2007.

European Environment Agency GHG data viewers.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Breakthrough in biorefining: scientists obtain high yields of HMF from sugar

It has been an elusive goal for the legion of green chemists working towards the creation of the bioeconomy: replace crude oil as the root source for plastic, fuels and scores of other industrial and household chemicals with inexpensive, nonpolluting renewable plant matter.

Scientists from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) took a giant step closer to efficient biorefining this week, reporting in the June 15 issue of the journal Science that they have directly converted sugars ubiquitous in nature to an alternative source for those products that make oil so valuable, with very little of the residual impurities that have made the quest so daunting.

No one else has been able to convert glucose directly in high yields to a primary building block for fuel and polyesters. Using a novel non-acidic catalytic system containing metal chloride catalysts in a solvent capable of dissolving cellulose, the scientists succeeded in extracting HMF, obtaining yields of 70% for glucose and almost 90% for fructose.

The building block HMF, which stands for hydroxymethylfurfural, is a chemical derived from carbohydrates such as glucose and fructose and is viewed as a promising surrogate for petroleum-based chemicals to make biobased polyesters, biofuels and many other products typical of the bioeconmy (image, click to enlarge).
"This, in my view, is breakthrough science in the renewable energy arena. This work opens the way for fundamental catalysis science in a novel solvent." - J.M. White, IIC director and Robert A. Welch chair in materials chemistry at the University of Texas.
Glucose, in plant starch and cellulose, is nature's most abundant sugar. But getting a commercially viable yield of HMF from glucose has been very challenging. In addition to low yield until now, the conversion process always generates many different byproducts, including levulinic acid, making product purification expensive and uncompetitive with petroleum-based chemicals.

Z. Conrad Zhang, senior author who led the research and a scientist with the PNNL-based Institute for Interfacial Catalysis (IIC), together with former post-doc Haibo Zhao, and colleagues John Holladay and Heather Brown, all from PNNL, were able to coax HMF yields upward of 70 percent from glucose and nearly 90 percent from fructose while leaving only traces of acid impurities.

To achieve this, they experimented with a novel non-acidic catalytic system containing metal chloride catalysts in a solvent capable of dissolving cellulose. The solvent, called an ionic liquid, enabled the metal chlorides to convert the sugars to HMF. Ionic liquids provide an additional benefit: it is reusable, thus produces none of the wastewater in other methods that convert fructose to HMF:
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Metal chlorides belong to a class of ionic-liquid-soluble materials called halides, which in general work well for converting fructose to HMF but not so well when glucose is the initial stock. In fact, attempts at direct glucose conversion created so many impurities that it was simpler to start with the fructose, less common in nature than glucose.

Zhang and his team, working with a high-throughput reactor capable of testing 96 metal halide catalysts at various temperatures, discovered that a particular metal - chromium chloride - was by far the most effective at converting glucose to HMF with few impurities and, as such reactions go, at low temperature, 100 degrees centigrade.

The chemistry at work remains largely a mystery, Zhang said, but he suspects that metal chloride catalysts work during an atom-swapping phase that sugar molecules go through called mutarotation, in which an H (hydrogen) and OH (hydroxyl group) trade places.

The hydrogen-hydroxyl position-switch that allows the catalytic conversion was verified by nuclear magnetic resonance performed at the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a DOE national scientific user facility located at PNNL. During the swap, the molecule opens, Zhang said.

"The key is to take advantage of the open form to perform a hydride transfer through which glucose is converted to fructose."

Zhang's next step is to tinker with ionic solvents and metal halides combinations to see if he can increase HMF yield from glucose while reducing separation and purification cost.

"The opportunities are endless," Zhang said, "and the chemistry is starting to get interesting."

Image: Scientists have discovered the most effective method yet to convert glucose, found in plants worldwide and nature's most abundant sugar, to HFM, a chemical that can be broken into components for products now made from petroleum. Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

More information:

Eurekalert: Plastic that grows on trees - Fuel, polyester and other chemicals from biomass get a giant boost, PNNL team reports in the journal Science - June 14, 2007.

At the time of this release, the abstract for the article in Science was not yet available.

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Scientists develop 'interactive' crop system that signals water, fertilizer needs of individual plants

An invention designed to monitor crops grown during long space missions now allows thirsty terrestrial crops to signal their need for water and fertilizers to farmers. The system was developed by researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and consists of high-tech leaf sensors measuring leaf thickness and water deficiency, which communicate wirelessly with computers and crop tenders. The system could revolutionise agriculture in water-stressed regions around the world.

Along with continuous breakthroughs in biotechnology and nanotechnology, it is this type of inventions with major implications for global agriculture that may make the most optimistic long-term biofuel scenarios more realistic.

Interactive agriculture
According to research associate Hans-Dieter Seelig from CU-Boulder's BioServe Space Technology Center, which develops products based on space life science research, the interactive technology includes a tiny sensor that can be clipped to plant leaves charting their thickness, a key measure of water deficiency and accompanying stress, Data from the leaves could be sent wirelessly over the Internet to computers linked to irrigation equipment, ensuring timely watering, cutting down on excessive water and energy use and potentially saving farmers millions of dollars per year.

Based in large part on Seelig's 2005 CU-Boulder doctoral thesis in aerospace engineering sciences, the technology was further developed at BioServe, a NASA Research Partnership Center for the commercialization of space. It was originally designed for use in conserving water for plant growth during long-term space flight. The new system was optioned to AgriHouse Inc., a high tech company from Colorado, in March by the University of Colorado Technology Transfer Office, giving AgriHouse the exclusive right to negotiate a license with CU within 12 months. "We think this is an exciting technology, and the implications for the agriculture industry are enormous," said Seelig.

Existing technology like soil moisture sensors used to assess a crop's water needs do not always provide an accurate picture of existing plant and field conditions.
"What we are developing is a non-intrusive device that gently rests on the plants and lets them interface with the digital world. Basically, this is a device that will allow plants to talk to humans and communicate their needs, like when to water and apply fertilizer." - Richard Stoner, AgriHouse founder and president.
Less than one-tenth the size of a postage stamp, the sensor consists of an integrated-circuit chip that clips to individual plant leaves and collects and stores information, said Seelig. When the leaves lose enough water to contract to a critical width, the sensor can wirelessly signal computers:
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The computers, for example, could instruct individual pivot irrigation systems used widely on Colorado's eastern plains to dispense set amounts of water to particular crops, automatically turning the motors that drive them on-and-off and conserving water and energy in the process, he said.

"Farmers today rely on standard practices that include a good eye and a green thumb," said Stoner. "But this new system can tell a farmer precisely when a plant's water uptake potential is at its peak, which could conceivably decrease the number of watering days for certain crops by up to a day or two each week."

Economists estimate that agricultural activity accounts for about 40 percent of the total freshwater use in the United States. About 60 percent of all crops in the United States are irrigated using water from lakes, reservoirs, wells and rivers.

Stoner likened the plant communication aspect of the invention to a scene in the 1986 comedy musical film, "Little Shop of Horrors," when a giant carnivorous plant tells humans to "feed me." "This technology allows plants to say, 'water me,' " he said.

High eastern plains water-use has led to lawsuits against Colorado for violations of interstate water compacts, including a recent $30 million payment to Kansas for overuse of the Arkansas River, said Seelig. A recent U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit against Colorado and Nebraska for overuse of Republican River water threatened to shut down all Colorado wells impacting the river if solutions for reducing irrigation water are not found. Farmers irrigate nearly one-half million acres on the eastern plains from the Ogallala Aquifer that directly impacts the Republican River, he said.

The researchers have been experimenting with cowpea, a legume, but believe the new leaf-sensor technology would be transferable to a variety of crops, including corn, wheat, potatoes, sugar beets and pinto beans. In the future, it might also be applicable to monitoring large swaths of urban grass like city parks, Stoner said.

"This device is very precise, and will allow a plant to receive just the right amount of water," said Seelig. "If a plant can tell a water valve when to open and when to close, farmers are going to save a lot of money."

In 1997, Stoner and AgriHouse teamed up with BioServe and NASA on plant-growth experiments and hardware shipped to Russia's Mir Station, experiments which led to the development by AgriHouse of a commercial, all natural crop-boosting product known as "Beyond." AgriHouse has received two NASA Small Business Innovation Research contracts in recent years to develop and manufacture high performance food production systems for Earth and space, said Stoner.

Stoner is the principal investigator on a US$150,000 Small Business Technology Transfer research grant awarded in May by the National Science Foundation to AgriHouse to develop the new technology. Seelig is an institutional investigator on the effort. In 2006, Seelig was awarded a US$10,000 proof-of-concept grant for his research from CU's Technology Transfer Office.

Image: The new technology invented at the University of Colorado at Boulder involves tiny sensors clipped to plant leaves to wirelessly monitor the water needs of crops. It has been optioned to AgriHouse Inc. of Berthoud, Colo. Courtesy: AgriHouse Inc.

More information:
University of Colorado: CU-Boulder Invention May Allow Thirsty Crops To Signal Farmers - June 14, 2007

Seelig, Hans-Dieter, "The assessment of water deficit stress in plants using optical measurement methods", University of Colorado, Phd. Thesis, 2005.

Hans-Dieter Seelig, et. al, "Non-Contact Measurement Methods of Detecting Plant Water Deficit Stress for Space Flight Growth Chamber Application"[*abstract], SAE Technical Papers, Document Number: 2004-01-2455, January 2004.

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Landless movement in Brazil demands land reform, inclusive biofuel production model

The largest movement fighting for the distribution of unproductive rural property to landless peasant farmers in Brazil convenes for its fifth annual meeting in Brasília this week. The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) or Landless Workers Movement says that the rapidly growing biofuels industry in the country, led by large agribusinesses, is aggravating the concentration of land ownership and driving up land prices. It wants another production model that promotes ownership by small farmers.

MST leaders - who long put their hopes in President Lula's left-wing government - say the progress made by the administration's agrarian reform programme has been small and slow. The process has been "practically stagnant" since the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), they say.

The government claims the contrary and says some 371,000 rural families already have received a total of 32 million hectares of land in the last four years, "an area larger than Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined." It admits though much more can be done.

Part of a land reform strategy is the recently implemented Pro-Biodiesel plan aimed at the participation of family-run farms and at strengthening their food security (see: An in-depth look at Brazil's "Social Fuel Seal"). Some 65,000 families are currently benefiting from it and the administration increased credits for family farms from 1.15 to 6.25 billion dollars, it claims. The Pro-Biodiesel program is seen as "revolutionary", given Brazil's century old and deep rooted inequalities. But the MST wants more to be done, now.

The movement - created 23 years ago - fears that the government- sponsored plan for producing ethanol and other biofuels will lead to ever-larger rural farming estates. Joao Pedro Stedile, a member of the MST national leadership, told IPS that the current biofuel production model forms part of the "agricultural model of the dominant classes, the big capitalists who have built up an alliance of vested interests, comprised of transnational corporations on one hand and large Brazilian landowners on the other." This alliance, he said, is based on export-oriented production on vast tracts of land, and heavy use of toxic agrochemicals that damage the environment.

Agribusiness versus inclusive models
The MST advocates a different model for biofuel production, one that is "focused on the needs of the people, and is based on keeping peasant farmers in the countryside and on multi-crop production that puts a priority on food production, without the use of agrotoxics," said the activist. The MST's delegates are discussing alternatives to agribusiness:
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"Agribusiness impedes land reform because to carry out such reforms, it is necessary to democratise access to property ownership, carve up the large estates (latifundium) and stimulate multi-crop farming for the domestic market," said Stedile. Agribusiness, by contrast, "needs ever larger scales of production and increasingly concentrates land ownership," he added.

According to the Pastoral Land Commission, 3.5 percent of Brazil's landholders own nearly 60 percent of the best farmland, while the poorest 40 percent of farmers have a mere one percent.

The MST, Latin America's largest social movement, stages occupations of unproductive land to press for faster, more effective agrarian reform.

Foreign investments seen as threat
Stedile said that "What worries us now is the offensive we are seeing by U.S. investors who are funnelling large amounts of money into the purchase of land and distilleries in Brazil, to produce ethanol."

He pointed to the purchase of 13 ethanol factories, mainly by U.S. investors. For example, U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill bought the largest ethanol plant in Riberao Preto in the interior of the state of Sao Paulo, along with 356,000 hectares of sugar cane crops.

"The recent announcement in Brazil by Soros is also pathetic," said the activist. Adeco, a company in which Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros is the main shareholder, has invested 900 million dollars in the construction of three ethanol plants in the southern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. In addition, Soros plans to purchase one billion dollars worth of land in Brazil through an investment fund (earlier post).

A recent study published by the FNP Institute, which is linked to the agricultural market research services firm AgraFNP, confirms that land prices have increased as a result of the ethanol boom. The study, coordinated by agronomist Jacqueline Dettman, notes that in states like Sao Paulo, sugar cane production is encroaching on orange crops and pastureland, and has driven land prices up by 70 percent in the last year. And in areas suitable for growing sugar cane in the impoverished northeast, land prices have hit record highs, increasing by 84 percent over the last year, says the study.

Food and fuel compatible
In an interview with IPS, Minister of Agrarian Development Guilherme Cassel admitted that along with the growth of ethanol production, "there have to be regulations to ensure that production is not based on the expansion of the latifundio at the expense of the environment, family farms and agrarian reform."

But production of biofuels and food are compatible, he said, if they are planned and regulated, "by avoiding, for example, the purchase of land by foreign investors, which even poses a problem in terms of national sovereignty."

Two models
Cassel, however, said he had discrepancies with respect to the MST's argument that agribusiness has been favoured over a "social" model of agriculture.

"In Brazil we have two models: agribusiness, based on large extensions of land and monoculture farming, and the family farm model, based on land reform settlements, crop diversification and protection of the environment," he stated.

During his first four years in office, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva "supported both models, and both were very effective," he said.

Brazil is currently in a position "where it is no longer necessary to commit ourselves only to monoculture farming to generate revenues. At the same time, we support agrarian reform and family agriculture," Cassel added.

He pointed out that over the last four years, the Lula administration increased credits for family farms from 1.15 to 6.25 billion dollars.

The minister said he agreed with the MST that of the two models, "the best one for the Brazilian countryside is the one based on small landholdings, with large numbers of people working, generating jobs and income, with diversified production that protects the environment."

This viewpoint, he acknowledged, is opposed to the model "that has concentrated land and has caused unemployment and marginalisation among people in the countryside, deforestation, slave labour and violence."

ProBiodiesel program "revolutionary"
The government, he added, is prioritising production of biodiesel, produced from vegetable oils, as a motor for rural development.

He described this as a "revolutionary policy" that has already benefited some 200,000 farmers in the northeast, according to government figures.

What the minister and Stedile do not agree on is the progress made by the government's agrarian reform programme. The MST leader argues that the process has been "practically stagnant" since the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003).

Stedile says 65 percent of the new settlements in which landless farmers have been granted property were established on publicly-owned land in the Amazon jungle region, and thus "should be labelled ‘colonisation projects' instead of ‘settlements'."

The remaining 35 percent, according to the MST, are settlements in which there has been no true agrarian reform policy, in the sense of "measures aimed at distributing land and democratising the ownership of rural property."

"We maintain that these settlement policies do not constitute agrarian reform, but are policies of social contention aimed at resolving short-term problems" that form part of "free-market economic policies that have left behind national and industrial development."

"I don't agree with Stedile's arguments," Cassel responded. "The Brazilian government can confidently state that never before have so many people been settled on land of their own in such a short time in Brazil."

According to the minister, 371,000 rural families have received a total of 32 million hectares of land in the last four years, "an area larger than Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland combined."

He did not deny that many of the families were settled in the Amazon jungle region, and said that policy should be included in the aims of social movements like the MST when they "discuss a rational and environmentally sustainable occupation of land."

IPS: David, Goliath and Land Reform - June 13, 2007.

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Ericsson, Idea Cellular and GSMA launch live biofuel base stations in India

Earlier we discussed how mobile phone use is skyrocketing in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions and how biofuels help make rural areas active participants of the era of fast and mobile communications. Mobile telephony drives social change and can transform agriculture, small businesses, micro-trade and grassroots politics for the better. Biofuels allow the technology to become available to the rural poor (earlier posts).

Indian mobile operator Idea Cellular, Ericsson and the GSM Association's Development Fund today announced that four mobile base stations powered by locally produced biofuels have extended Idea's commercial mobile network in rural India.

All four locations in the state of Maharashtra are greenfield sites that have not previously had access to a mobile network and are located in areas with unreliable power supply.
"The use of biofuels is helping us to bring the social and economical benefits that access to communication bring to rural communities in India." -
Sanjeev Aga, Managing Director, IDEA Cellular.
The live mobile base stations follow the initial feasibility assessment of different sources of oil for biodiesel production and establishment of a local supply chain (earlier post).

Fish oil
Biodiesel has several advantages over conventional diesel as a power source for base stations. An important factor is that it is produced locally, creating employment in rural areas while reducing the need for transportation. Biodiesel has a much lower impact on the environment than conventional diesel. The cleaner burning renewable fuel also requires fewer site visits and also extends the life of the base station generator, reducing operator costs.

The biodiesel for the base stations initially comes from fish oil and waste vegetable oil - essentially used-frying oils from local restaurants. In the long term, locally produced jatropha oil will be used. The selected sources for biodiesel have low environmental impact and follow responsible environmental practices for biodiesel production:
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Tom Phillips, Chief Government and Regulatory Affairs Officer of the GSMA, the global trade association for mobile operators, says: "Exploring alternative power solutions, such as biofuels, is key to the development of cost-effective ways to extend mobile networks to the 20% of the world's population that don't have coverage today."

Mats Granryd, President of Ericsson India, says: "Solutions to solve the power challenges associated with expanding rural coverage will help operators reach people beyond the electricity grid. We are pleased to pioneer biofuel into the telecom industry."

The Indian government is encouraging local companies to adopt biofuels, so Idea Cellular is in the position of becoming a leading exponent of this alternative power source.

GSMA Development Fund
The GSMA's Development Fund was set up in October 2005 to catalyse the role of mobile technology in social, economic and environmental development. Working with the mobile industry, the development community and governments, the Fund seeks to identify innovative ideas for development that are scalable and sustainable on a global level. By focusing on practical implementation, the Development Fund and its partners create unique knowledge and experience of the role and potential of mobile technology in development.

The GSM Association (GSMA) is the global trade association representing 700 GSM mobile phone operators across 217 countries of the world. In addition, more than 180 manufacturers and suppliers support the Association's initiatives as key partners.

The primary goals of the GSMA are to ensure mobile phones and wireless services work globally and are easily accessible, enhancing their value to individual customers and national economies, while creating new business opportunities for operators and their suppliers. The Association's members serve more than two billion customers - 82 percent of the world's mobile phone users.

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Penn State University demonstrates B100 in tractors

In principle, biofuels can be produced with virtually no petroleum inputs. Farm equipment - irrigation machines, tractors, harvesting tools - can all be run on biofuels, and production plants can be fuelled by biomass (as is already being done in Brazil, where ethanol plants are powered by bagasse and even produce excess electricity they sell to the grid). The fact is especially important for agricultural regions in oil-importing developing countries that struggle with high oil prices. In an ideal scenario, farmers would produce their own biofuels on-site, and use them to grow food and fuel.

A collaborative demonstration project involving Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences and machinery manufactured by Case New Holland shows it is possible and appears to have ramifications for the makers and users of all types of diesel-powered equipment (earlier post, see also here for biogas powered heavy duty farming equipment; and here on new dedicated machinery being developed for energy crop farming).

For the past year, Penn State has been running two new, unmodified New Holland tractors on B100 biodiesel (fuel made from soybean oil with no petroleum-based component) with no ill effects. After extensive use on Penn State's farm fields, neither of the machines shows any sign of extra wear, according to Glen Cauffman, the university's manager of farm operations and services.
"Thus far, we have experienced no negative effects of B100. The tractors' power, fuel consumption and performance appear equal to that of machines running on petroleum diesel fuel." - Glen Cauffman, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences
This spring, New Holland added a third, larger tractor to the study. The new model is just now being introduced to customers. It has a 150-horsepower, 'Tier III' engine, which is the newest generation of off-road diesels. The engine is completely computer controlled, providing cleaner exhaust emissions than previous diesels.

Using straight biofuel to power the tractors is the culmination of a process Cauffman and the College of Agricultural Sciences began about five years ago, when Penn State began an aggressive program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on imported oil. At that time, engine manufacturers were not endorsing biodiesel blends greater than B5 (5 percent biodiesel) and threatening to void equipment warranties if that mixture was exceeded:
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Despite the then-premium price and scarce availability of biodiesel fuel, the college's Farm Operations and Services Department began using biodiesel in its 40-plus tractors, trucks and utility vehicles. But if Penn State Cooperative Extension was going to promote the use of higher rates of biodiesel, college experts knew that they had to offer information based on experience.

So Farm Operations began buying 100 percent biodiesel (B100) and "splash-blending" it with petroleum-based diesel fuel at the University Park campus to achieve a blend of B20 (20 percent biodiesel). Following the College of Agricultural Sciences' lead, the university in 2006 converted all of its diesel equipment to B20 biodiesel blend.

Cauffman and his staff decided to stretch the envelope even further, in collaboration with machinery company Case New Holland, by operating the two tractors on B100 biodiesel. Their goal is to learn what owners of diesels can expect when they choose to be independent of petroleum. Penn State Cooperative Extension will disseminate information generated from the demonstration project.

Other research with biofuels is ongoing in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, Cauffman noted. "The Pennsylvania Soybean Board funded projects to analyze the effects of higher blends of biodiesel on engine crankcase lubricant, to develop and evaluate additives to improve cold-weather flow-ability of biodiesel, and to evaluate an alternative biodiesel formulation process.

"The biodiesel team at Penn State is growing 51 plots of various oil-seed crops, which offer alternative fuel-crop opportunities for Pennsylvania farmers," Cauffman adds. "In addition, 12 acres of canola are being grown for processing into biodiesel at the university."

Penn State's role in helping the country transition to green energy is important for both symbolic and practical reasons, points out Cauffman, who was recently honored as a "Biofuels Pioneer" by the environmental group PennFuture. "The university is setting an example for business and industry to follow," he says.

Because biodiesel is made in the United States, it keeps fuel-buying dollars at home, and is environmentally friendly, he explains. When burned in engines, biodiesel produces fewer emissions. Studies indicate that adding vegetable oil to a fuel mixture extends engine life and makes engines run smoother.

"If more businesses, farmers and heating-oil customers used biodiesel, it would improve air quality, reduce oil imports and give Pennsylvania's soybean growers more outlets to sell their product," Cauffman says. "Now all university equipment uses biodiesel, and we expect other businesses in Pennsylvania to make the conversion after Penn State demonstrates the viability."

Image: Farm operations manager Glen Cauffman has led the effort to power the university's agricultural equipment with soybean-based biodiesel fuel. Credit: Penn State Agriculture Magazine.

More information:
Penn State Agriculture Magazine: "Going Greener", Winter/Spring 2007 issue.

Penn State University, College of Agricultural Sciences: Penn State shows running tractors on straight biofuel is (bio)logical - June 7, 2007.

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Boeing to fly aircraft on 50% biofuels blend

In an in-depth interview, US plane-maker Boeing has told EurActiv of its plans to fly aircraft on a 50% biofuels blend in a bid to reduce its carbon footprint and to overcome the future threat of 'Peak Oil'. However, the company says that it does not expect much from the inclusion of aviation in the EU's CO2-trading scheme.

EurActiv - the leading EU-centered news service - spoke to Billy Glover, managing director for environmental strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

A few years ago, energy specialists would have laughed at the idea of using biofuels in jet aircraft. Today, a growing group of university researchers, airforces (Argentina , US) , biofuel companies and airlines are developing and testing sustainably produced bio-based fuels for aviation. Boeing is fully committed to join these efforts. It is collaborating with, amongst others, Nasa and researchers in Brazil who are developing bio-jet fuel from Babassu, and mentions different other sustainable bio-jet fuel production paths in its recent publication 'Alternate Fuels for use in Commercial Aircraft' [*.pdf].

Amongst the most promising alternative fuels for aircraft are synthetic fuels obtained from the Fischer-Tropsch process which liquefies synthesis gas derived from fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal. But these synfuels do not reduce CO2 emissions. Synthetic biofuels - obtained from the gasification and liquefaction of biomass - do as do vegetable oil based fatty acid methyl-esters. According to Boeing, a blend of synfuels and biofuels makes it possible in the future to replace petroleum-based jet-fuels (image, click to enlarge).

Some excerpts from the interview:

EurActiv: Talking about fuels - Are you also looking at ways to diversify the fuel mix in the aviation sector? I hear biofuels are now being considered for use in airplanes as well as in cars...
This is one of the new developments that we're really excited about. Just a few weeks ago – on 24 April – we announced that we are working on a biofuel-flight demonstration, together with Virgin Atlantic and General Electric, scheduled for 2008. We are in the testing phase right now, sorting through dozens of samples of different types of fuels to select the one that we'll use for the biofuel demonstration.

Normally, due to the chemical composition these types of fuels freeze more easily than crude oil processed fuel. So we have to do some extra processing. We are looking at different blends of biofuels with more conventional sources of fuel. If you can run the plane on a 50% blend, you’ll reduce your carbon footprint by maybe 20-25% on that day. So while we may not get the full benefit, we will achieve a partial benefit in terms of carbon reduction. We are aiming to achieve properties that look like, act like, and perform like today's fuel, and therefore can be used in today's planes.

EurActiv: What timeframe are you looking at to achieve the 50% blend? Will it be short term or long term?

The blend can be used as soon as it's available, in all the airplanes that are already flying, without modification. No major changes of distribution networks, storage networks will be necessary.

This does not mean that in ten years' time you will be able to buy bio-fuel blend everywhere. It will take time for the processing capacity to rise, to have the right amount of plant stock and the processing capability. But what we can foresee is that within 10 years, there will be certain airports with fuel tanks where this blend will be available. When you fly to that airport, that’s the fuel you get. When you fly to another airport, you might get a more conventional fuel.

The 50% blend figure is our target. We'd like to go to 100%, but we don't believe that is technically feasible at the moment. For the biofuels demonstration that we’ll do next year, we'll actually test the 50% blend in the lab. If it doesn't have the properties that we need, then we’ll try a 40% blend, and then we’ll try a 30% blend, but hopefully we’ll be close to 50% and get the performance we need.

EurActiv: How many airports do you expect will have the blend available ten years from now? Will they be in Europe mainly, or do you expect them to be in the US, or elsewhere?
I expect the blend to be available in different places at different points in time - depending on the entrepreneurs, the different types of feed stock. There will probably be different types of blends around the world, depending on the feed stock that is most available in the region and the required processes:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

EurActiv: Would you expect a country like Brazil – which is a leader in biofuels – to provide a lot of it?
Yes. They're working actively on this:

EurActiv: Has the US got specific targets on this?
There are no specific targets for jet fuel in the US. This is just in the feasibility stage. But there are fuel providers in the US working on this as there are in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific region.

EurActiv: What about sustainability issues – the competition with food crops for example, which has already put pressure on corn prices in some countries?
We do have criteria to make sure we're not competing with food users, to make sure that there are adequate yields so you’re not using up land that's otherwise occupied. To make sure you’re not using up water resources and that you’re not displacing forests or indigenous plants.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (the FAA) recently chaired a conference [in October 2006] which launched the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI). It laid out what they called the 'road map' which looked out over 20-30 years to assess what would need to be done in R&D, regulatory framework to industrialise and commercialise alternative fuels. The road map has been an act of collaboration for the parties involved on a voluntary basis.

We looked at the road map, and it actually contained a flight demonstration for bio-fuel, which was planned in five years. That inspired us to see if we could do better, and it resulted in setting the goal and getting partners lined up to actually do a flight demonstration next year. It may not be the only one – I hope it won't be the only one – but it's a start.

European Emissions Trading Scheme
EurActiv: Air traffic is attracting increasing attention from politicians due to concerns about global warming. How can aircraft manufacturers help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions? How is the reduction-potential broken down between engine improvement and other areas?
Improvement of the engines, more efficient structures and advanced aerodynamics and systems each contribute roughly a third to efficiency gains.

Together with the engine manufacturers, we work very aggressively on new designs and new technology to stretch targets on fuel efficiency. Aerodynamics are fundamental to a plane. This is how efficiently you 'lift' the aircraft. The more robust the aerodynamics, the better you are on fuel efficiency, CO2 efficiency and noise. Advanced structures and materials determine how much lighter you can make the plane. The fuselage of our newest 787 Dreamliner plane, for instance, is made primarily of carbon-fiber composite materials. This material is much lighter and stronger, reducing the overall weight. Weight reduction is most important for environmental performance.

One of the big trends is advanced electric systems. Airplanes in the past have relied heavily on hydraulic and pneumatic technology. Electric technology lets you be more precise in your control. You can control the air conditioning more precisely, for instance, by extracting power from the engines to run the air conditioning. So if we can run the air conditioning with an electric resource instead of taking the air off the engine, it means that we're more efficient.

A big issue in Europe is air-traffic management. A study by Eurocontrol says that we could achieve up to 12% reduction in CO2 emissions with the implementation of an efficient ATM system. That doesn't require any new aircraft, or any new technology, it is a policy issue.

Boeing is partnering with airports, airlines and civil aviation authorities at various international airports to improve airport operational efficiencies, for example by implementing Continuous Descent Arrival procedures. These approach paths reduce the exposure to aircraft noise and reduce fuel consumption and associated emissions. Almost every airport is unique in its geography, the amount of traffic at different times of the day – and you have different organisations involved from airport to airport, so it will take some time to implement this everywhere.

Fuels, airplanes, air-traffic management and ground operations are improving. All are important. Air-traffic management improvements represent the greatest short-term opportunities for significant reductions in CO2 emissions.

EurActiv: How will the inclusion of aviation in the EU carbon-trading systems (Emissions Trading Scheme - ETS) make an impact on Boeing's business?
The ETS proposal would require airlines to have allocations and credits for their emissions. Our aim – regardless of the details – is to provide efficient solutions.

Efficient solutions can involve new products, if airlines 'change out' their fleet over an investment period to significantly reduce their carbon emissions. Or it can involve working to improve operations – ground operations or flight operations – or it can involve working with air traffic management. Eurocontrol, for instance, has set some targets. Boeing is actively involved in working on the Single European Sky.

EurActiv: Obviously the EU-ETS will encourage new technology, so clearly that must be good news for you. Do you expect any extra business or a direct impact on orders?
We are already sold out until 2011, so we can't produce any more. It's a long-term market, orders are made far in advance…

EurActiv: So, are you planning to extend production capacity, then?
We're very cautious, and carefully consider changes in capacity, because it’s a significant investment and it's a long supply chain. And we're just very cautious about ramping production up and down. It has a massive impact if you don't get it right.

EurActiv: Do you have particular concerns regarding the inclusion of aviation in the EU-ETS?
One of our concerns is to make sure we have a global solution. We can’t design for 25% of the market very effectively, because it splits our resources. Global policy solutions are preferable due to the global nature of aviation. We would like to see these issues worked on at an international level, and in adherence to principles and findings of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, to the maximum extent possible.

EurActiv: Obviously, no market will require you to pollute more than in the neighbouring country, so why wouldn’t you adapt your whole fleet to the stricter EU standard?

Let me give you an example. London Heathrow has very strict noise rules called the 'quota-count system' - the QC system. In order to meet some of those rules, you have to make compromises in the design. So, it's been a well-publicised fact during the case of the A380 that the design of the engine, and the nacelle and so on, had to be adjusted to meet London noise at a higher fuel burn. So, CO2 was sacrificed in order to meet noise-requirements for the community that lives around London. Is that a good trade for the climate? That's the kind of question that drives us to say that global solutions are the better solutions.

EurActiv: So in a nutshell, you don't expect much impact from ETS inclusion on your business?
As an aircraft manufacturer and as a technology company, we're always trying to be ahead, developing and introducing new technologies to create better environmental performance for commercial jetliners, regardless of policy discussions. If you're in an industry such as ours, with lead times like ours, you think long ahead.

The bio-fuels research we started wasn't particularly triggered by a discussion about ETS. You have to continuously make improvements to be competitive. The regulatory framework should recognise that we are already working as fast as we can to make improvements.

Excerpts copyright of EurActiv, 2007.

More information:
EurActiv: Boeing 'really excited' about biofuels - June 14, 2007

US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA): Alternative Fuels in Commercial Aviation [*.pdf]

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO): Information paper - The potential use of alternative fuels for aviation - January 14, 2007

Boeing: Alternate Fuels for use in Commercial Aircraft [*.pdf] - s.d. 2007

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Saskatchewan commits C$80 million to development of biofuel plants - community ownership

The government of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan unveiled an C$80 (€56.3/US$74.9) million strategy to assist producers and communities in the construction and expansion of transportation ethanol or biodiesel production facilities in the province.

The Saskatchewan Biofuels Investment Opportunity (SaskBIO) Program was announced at the North East Saskatchewan Ethanol Forum in Tisdale. The four-year program that repayable contributions of up to C$10 million per project. An additional C$2 million will also be provided for biofuels and bioproducts research and development.

Community ownership
Corporations, individuals or partnerships, including co-operatives, are eligible to apply for funding to construct new or expand existing biofuels production facilities. But program applicants must have a minimum of five per cent farmer-community investment, and a minimum production capacity of two million litres per year for both new and expanding facilities.

Stressing the community-ownership factor Premier Lorne Calvert said "We created SaskBIO to provide an opportunity for farmers and communities to participate in the value-added biofuels industry in Saskatchewan through ownership of biofuels facilities. This program will also ensure that Saskatchewan is an attractive jurisdiction in which to build a sustainable biofuels industry."

SaskBIO is expected to have the following outcomes:
  • expansion of a biofuels industry in Saskatchewan that creates more jobs and economic spin-offs in rural Saskatchewan
  • development of new markets for Saskatchewan agricultural producers
  • increased activity in the Saskatchewan economy
  • decreased our impact on the environment
  • the creation of new opportunities for Saskatchewan's premiere research community
Saskatchewan is well-suited for the production of biofuels. The province has approximately 45 per cent of all the arable land in Canada, more than 40 per cent of the nation's agricultural feedstock and a significant forest resource. Saskatchewan was also the first province to make a legislative commitment to ethanol use:
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"The Government and people of Saskatchewan have embraced ethanol and biodiesel as a means to help end our reliance on non-renewable oil, bring new prosperity to rural areas and contribute to the fight against climate change," Minister of Regional Economic and Co-operative Development Lon Borgerson said. "Today's announcement will help us maintain our leadership role in the Canadian renewable fuels industry."

Under the eligibility criteria, a "farmer-community investor" is defined as follows:
  • agricultural producers (farmers) are defined as persons who filed their Saskatchewan income tax as farmers in at least one of the five years previous to the signing of the Contribution Agreement
  • a community investor is an individual or business whose primary address is located in a municipality in Saskatchewan, within a 100 kilometre radius of the applicant and
  • who files their income taxes as a Saskatchewan resident or business
  • a maximum of C$1 million investment per individual farmer or community investor will be recognized when calculating the total farmer-community investment in a project
More information:
Government of Saskatchewan: Saskatchewan Biofuels Investment Opportunity (SaskBIO) [*.pdf]

Government of Saskatchewan: Province commits $80 million to development of biofuel production facilities - June 12, 2007.

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Global effort to fight energy poverty in Africa is launched at the World Economic Forum

Energy security and generalised access to modern energy are key factors determining the failure or success of the sustainable social and economic development of societies. In sub-Saharan Africa, half a billion people, or three quarters of the population, lives without access to electricity. This is a major barrier to human development since both issues are strictly correlated (graph 1, click to enlarge). Sub-Saharan African countries consistently rank at the bottom of the Energy Development Index [*.pdf] (table 1, click to enlarge).

For this reson, energy poverty is key at the World Economic Forum on Africa (WEF-A) taking place from 13 to 15 June in Cape Town, South Africa. New initiatives are underway to help tackle the problem, that is finally beginning to be recognised by the international development and aid community as one of the core elements of any development strategy. At the WEF-A, the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) today agreed to join the World Economic Forum’s Energy Poverty Alliance as part of a drive to provide basic electricity to African citizens. Jay Naidoo, Chairman of the Board, and Paul Baloyi, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director, Development Bank of Southern Africa, have committed to host the Energy Poverty Action Management Unit (EPAMU) at their offices in Midrand. Energy Poverty Action (EPA) was launched at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in 2005 in Davos.

The Energy Poverty Alliance is a private sector initiative that delivers business expertise and best practices to reduce energy poverty. The three initiating partners, British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority (Canada), Eskom (South Africa) and Vattenfall (Sweden), have already committed to developing pilot projects in Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo, initially providing electricity to more than 70,000 people.

Goals of the EPA are:
  • developing local capacity in construction, operation, maintenance and revenue management
  • ensuring the participation of local communities. The greatest use of local resources, both with respect to labour and material, will maximize development gains
  • promoting a culture of payment for electricity through the delivery of high-quality services
  • promoting investment in the power sector across the developing world through the efficient delivery of rural electrification systems and revenue management
  • promoting a market within governments, utilities, commercial companies, communities, donors, banks or NGOs which have a mandate or interest in rural electrification and have the means to pay for the necessary investment
  • designing and installing the energy system, including considering the full range of potential solutions (e.g., biomass, hydro, solar, wind and inductive power, lowcost grid connections, pre-payment systems)
  • empowering/training local organizations in charge of the operation and maintenance of the system
  • guaranteeing financial sustainability by designing the system such that the end users pay all costs required for the ongoing operation and maintenance; social and environmental sustainability will also be included
Christoph Frei, Director of Energy at the World Economic Forum, described the DBSA's partnership as a key milestone for the World Economic Forum's Alliance. "This provides a good platform to link international business capability with local community needs, to develop a brand for electrification projects, and help develop financing mechanisms," he said . Frei added that the Energy Poverty Alliance is an ideal vehicle to engage more companies in developing electricity infrastructure:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"EPAMU will be developed into a centre of excellence that will employ skills and expertise from some of the most committed energy companies in the world. By developing sustainable, replicable models to address the challenges of energy poverty, EPAMU will facilitate the creation of local capacity, empowered to manage energy service delivery, maintain infrastructure and identify opportunities for future expansions. The key element is local empowerment and local economic sustainability, i.e. that the power systems are operated and maintained without the need for subsidies or transfers from the outside," said Steve J. Lennon, Managing Director, Resources and Strategy, Eskom, South Africa.

"The joint solution of using alternative sources of renewable energy, expanding the national and regional grids, and using innovative cost effective technologies will contribute to more individuals, industries and businesses gaining access to electricity; this is what EPA offers. And Eskom confidently supports EPAMU and its goals of increasing energy access in Africa," said Lennon.

African competitiveness
Also today, a new report from World Economic Forum, the World Bank and the African Development Bank on Africa's competitiveness was released which shows that African businesses can become far more competitive, but that African governments and their international partners will need to improve access to finance, rebuild infrastructure and strengthen institutions.

The conclusions, released today at the launch of a major new report, The Africa Competitiveness Report 2007, reflect research efforts of three institutions – the World Economic Forum, the African Development Bank and the World Bank. Low access to financial services emerges as a major obstacle for African enterprises, but poor infrastructure, corruption and weak institutions also make African goods and services less competitive in the global marketplace. The report also points to the growing number of success stories in the region that show the steps countries can take to improve business conditions.

The jointly produced report was released ahead of the World Economic Forum on Africa where it will be discussed in-depth. It is the first report on the region’s business environment to leverage knowledge and expertise within the three organizations, marking a new level of research cooperation. The report also presents an integrated vision of the policy challenges African nations face as they build a foundation for sustainable growth and prosperity.

The five common themes that emerge from the analysis of the competitiveness landscape in Africa are:
  1. Good policies are critical for a sound business environment. Policies are more important than geography or the abundance of natural resources. Countries that have implemented sound policies rank higher on competitiveness, with better growth and productivity outcomes.
  2. A critical constraint to businesses in Africa is access to finance. Further, improvements in the regulatory environment (such as better collateralization, transparency and auditing) represent a necessary step for unleashing the potential of finance for competitiveness in Africa.
  3. Infrastructure remains one of the top constraints to businesses in Africa. Energy and transportation are among the main bottlenecks to productivity growth and competitiveness in Africa. Firms lose as much as 8% of sales due to power outages, and transportation delays can account for as much as 3% of lost sales.
  4. Corruption in Africa is a serious obstacle to improving productivity and competitiveness. The frequent payment of bribes, inconsistent enforcement of regulations, significant time spent with officials and political favours directed to special interest groups significantly impact productivity.
  5. There are significant examples of success throughout the region. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index shows that the region, and sub-Saharan Africa in particular, lags primarily in the basics of infrastructure and education. However, many countries perform much better on issues associated with technological readiness and efficiency. Sustaining and expanding these opportunities remains a challenge.
“The work done by the World Economic Forum in the area of competitiveness is an important contribution to a better understanding of the challenges faced by policy-makers and the international community in their efforts to better assist these countries. This year’s Africa Competitiveness Report is a comprehensive attempt by our three organizations to place the continent in a broader international context and to cast light on the important aspects of development in the region,” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.

"Africa has the potential to become a far more competitive player in the global economy," said Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili, Vice-President, Africa Region, World Bank, Washington DC. "The study finds that, while a number of governments have significantly improved the business climate in their countries, the region as a whole has much more to do to make Africa a competitive location for enterprise. These changes in the business climate, together with greater access to finance and new investment in infrastructure, should come together to advance Africa’s drive to develop, create jobs and reduce poverty."

“The key to the future of African economies is trade and investment and, therefore, the business climate. Our aims at the African Development Bank are to act as a catalyst, to enhance the investment climate and to respond to demand in support of the Bank’s development goals. This is achieved by rallying investors to look at opportunities in African countries differently. I applaud the palpable progress being made in the regulatory and institutional domains. But we must vigorously now deal with the other set of barriers – physical – that means infrastructure. It is crystal clear today that energy shortages, poor roads and inadequate communication between countries and regions constitute a real impediment to the private sector and economic growth and, in the case of energy shortages, threaten to roll back economic achievements of the last six years,” said Donald Kaberuka, President, African Development Bank (ADB), Tunis.

The report analyses many aspects of Africa’s business environment and highlights the key issues that hinder improvements in Africa’s competitiveness and job growth. This year it examines many aspects of Africa’s business environment and themes that will boost the prosperity of nations. This includes detailed assessments of the drivers of productivity and employment growth, including the rankings of 29 African countries in the Global Competitiveness Index; the competitiveness and investment climate in Africa’s four largest economies (South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria and Egypt); the effect of gender disparities on employment and competitiveness; and the role of new technologies in fostering a more dynamic business environment.

Also included are detailed competitiveness and investment climate profiles, providing a comprehensive summary of the drivers of the competitiveness environment in each of the countries included in the report.

The Africa Competitiveness Report 2007 is an invaluable tool for policymakers, business strategists and other key stakeholders, as well as essential reading for all those with an interest in the region.

More information:
World Economic Forum: Energy Poverty Action [*.pdf] - brochure.

An interesting overview of the concept of global energy security is provided by the World Economic Forum and Cambridge Energy Research Associates who jointly produced The New Energy Security Paradigm [*.pdf] - Spring 2006.

For an in-depth analysis of energy's role in social and economic development, see the still authoritative theme chapter titled "Energy and Development" in the IEA's World Energy Outlook 2004 [*.pdf]. The text contains an interesting index tieing the Human Development Index to an Energy Index, resulting in the IEA's 'Energy Development Index'.

World Economic Forum: The Africa Competitiveness Report 2007 [*.html version, *.pdf version can be found here] - June 13, 2007.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

War-torn Sudan to become major sugar, ethanol producer

Oil brings conflict and poverty, biofuels bring stability and prosperity. The adage seems superficial, but war-torn Sudan could become the unlikely place where the words materialise into deeds. This largest of African countries is often associated with droughts and human-made humanitarian disasters. But Darfur aside, things are changing very rapidly in this nation of 40 million people, 80% of who make a living in agriculture. The South of the country, enjoying a fragile peace and political autonomy after 25 years of civil war with the North, is actually very lush, green and suitable for a range of crops. South Sudan is only now beginning to understand that it can become a major agricultural producer.

One of the priorities is to increase sugar production. Experts recently outlined the country's plans to boost the sector's output ten-fold to an annual 10 million tonnes by 2015, up from some 850,000 tonnes at present. The vast African nation could eventually end up producing twice that - a staggering amount that would put Sudan in the top-five of world producers alongside Brazil, India and the EU. Obviously, when sugar plans are announced nowadays, biofuels are in the air. And indeed, Sudan is expected to legalise the blending of ethanol in gasoline by July.

Speaking at a three-day International Sugar Organization (ISO) meeting in Mauritius, Hassan Hashim Erwa, marketing manager for the Kenana Sugar Company representing Sudan listed the projects that will be implemented. Kenana is owned mainly by Arab government investors (ironically, that is, people with links to OPEC).

Jobs, health, education and... ethanol
The majority of 13 projects included in a 10-year strategy to produce the 10 milllon tonnes are south of Khartoum between the White and Blue Niles. "By 2015, we will be ready to produce 10 million tonnes," Erwa said. "The capacity of Sudan could go to 20 million." Part of Sudanese agricultural reforms, the projects are expected to create 700,000 jobs and to improve health and education for three million people, Erwa said. This opportunity for socio-economic development is of course much welcome in a country that has just come out of a devastating civil war and that is rebuilding its society.

The largest of the projects, the Eljazeera project, was aiming to produce 2.9 million tonnes of sugar and 205 million litres of ethanol per year, he said. Sudan, which produces 330,000 barrels per day of crude oil, is expected to legalise the blending of ethanol with petrol in July, he said:
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Sudan's extra sugar production will most likely be sold on Arab, African, and internal markets, Erwa said. Linked to the presence of oil, Sudan's economy is expected to grow up to 13 per cent this year. "The Sudanese population is growing, the patterns and consumption habits of people are changing," he said.

Sudanese production could also help plug a sugar deficit in the Middle East and North Africa, equal to almost 9 million tonnes for 2006/07, according to ISO figures. This month, the ISO forecast a world sugar production surplus of 9.1 million tonnes for 2006/07. World production would equal 162.6 million tonnes, it said. "All of these factors will contribute to a very dynamic market," Erwa said.

Brazil, global leader in the production of ethanol from sugarcane is showing growing interest to cooperate with Sudan on producing biofuels. At a recent industry fair in Khartoum, representatives from Brazil's ethanol sector were present, and the director of a major Brazilian research institute involved in organising tech transfers and South-South relations said Sudan would make for an interesting partner for joint biofuel development projects (earlier post).

Vast potential
This interest no doubt stems from the country's vast untapped agricultural potential. Sudan has around 86 million hectares of arable land available for rainfed agriculture (roughly three times the size of the United Kingdom, twice the size of California), some 17 million (slightly less than 20%) is currently under cultivation. Even with rapid population growth, Sudan can easily feed its population and neighboring countries, while sustainably growing a vast amount of energy crops for biofuels.

According to the Global Agro-Ecological Data compiled by the FAO and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Sudan has around 26 million hectares of suitable land for the cultivation of raindfed sugar cane (high inputs), and 73.7 million hectares for sorghum (map, click to enlarge). Take into account that dedicated varieties of sweet sorghum have recently been bred specially for semi-arid regions and with ethanol production in mind (both the ICRISAT as well as scientists from the Texas A&M University's Agricultural Experiment Station have developed such drought-resistant, high yield sorghums; the ICRISAT variety delivers grain, forage and sugar all in one crop; the U.S. variety is meant as a biomass crop for the production of cellulosic ethanol).

Other biofuel crops with a large potential in the country are sweet potato (60.5 million ha), groundnut (79 million ha), pearl millet (75.7 million hectares) and especially soybeans - a major biodiesel feedstock - with 73 million hectares. Of the latter, Sudan only uses a tiny fraction. All data mentioned here are for high input, but rainfed cropping.

The bulk of this potential arable land is found in the Autonomous Region of Southern Sudan.

More information:

On the land data per crop, see FAO/IIASA: Data Sets of selected Global AEZ assessment results - all data are in *.excel format.

Land suitability maps per crop can be generated from the FAO Land & Water Development Division's database of Land Suitability Maps for Rainfed Cropping, which are based on the Global Agro-Ecological Zoning (GAEZ) methodology.

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Senegal's Agronomic Research Institute outlines biofuel strategy

In many developing countries the basic resources needed for the production of biofuels are present: abundant land, rain, sunshine, suitable energy crops and a huge need for stable fuel supplies and energy security. What they often lack though is agronomic and scientific knowledge and research capacities (earlier post), infrastructures and policy frameworks. The West can help invest in the latter, and South-South cooperation with biofuel leaders like Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia can go a far way.

But local research institutions and extension services have found in bioenergy and biofuels a new area in which they can build expertise and keep themselves in a relevant position by attracting knowledge and tech transfers. By diversifying research and extension work to this entirely new sector, . In Senegal, the Institut Sénégalais pour les Recherches Agricoles (ISRA) that had lost sense of its purpose over the past years is now being revived because of the biofuel opportunity.

Speaking during his inauguration as new president of the ISRA, Dr Macoumba Diouf explained [*.pdf] the great chances biofuels offer Senegal, but also the many challenges ahead:
  • new crops like tabanani (jatropha) and ricin (castor beans) can deliver competitive biodiesel provided all byproducts are used in innovative ways
  • Senegal's petroleum import bill, that skyrocketed over the past two years, can be reduced, with saved funds invested in the revival of the agricultural sector in the country, aimed at alleviating poverty
  • strengthen the income security of farmers, which will aid to hold back the wave of internal migration from the country-side to the cities
  • restore the environment and bring degraded lands back into culture
  • challenges include the need for the acquisition of basic technologies, the development of dedicated policies, knowledge banks and extension services, and the creation of credit lines for farmers
The role of the ISRA, sketched in the text "Quelle recherche agricole pour une agriculture moderne et durable au Sénégal", will consist of pursueing tech and knowledge transfers (from, amongst others, Brazil), but especially the education of the vast rural population that will need to acquire the basic skills needed to grow feedstocks. The Brazilian model of the Pro-Biodiesel program - which works with smallholders and is explicitly aimed alleviating poverty - is taken as the example to follow.

Diouf referred to Brazil's ongoing effort to offer assistance to Senegal both on the front of agronomic knowledge for the production of feedstocks, as well as for the conversion of oilseeds and biomass into biofuels:
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The ISRA is currently working on creating synergies between the National Biofuel Program and special and local agricultural programs. Different agendas, operational strategies and time-frames make that these programs often overlap and that the organisations tasked with their implementation are doing the same tasks twice. An integration of all organisations dealing with bioenergy is called for by the ISRA.

The biofuel opportunity opens the important prospect of diversification of the crop base. Senegalese farmers currently rely on millet, sorghum and niébé which have established and relatively stable markets. However, low prices for these crops keep the agricultural sector relatively static. Diversifying into energy crops will create a new dynamic. The ISRA is actively involved in studying the effects of large-scale crop diversification on the national market.

Senegal largely remains a rural country, with 77% of its population making a living in agriculture. However, a steady stream of migrants moves to the coastal cities, from where youngsters attempt to make it to Europe. This trend is a threat to the vitality of the country's agricultural sector. The Senegalese government thinks a modern bioenergy industry and the jobs it generates may counter this internal migration.

Based on translations by JVDB, cc Biopact, 2007.

More information:

ISRA: Mot du directeur général de l'ISRA entrant, Dr. Macoumba Diouf, à la cérémonie d'installation [*.pdf] - s.d. (February-March 2007)

Walf Fadjri (Dakar): Production de biocarburant: La contribution de l'Isra - May 18, 2007.

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Mendel and BP collaborate on grass breeding for cellulosic biofuels

Mendel Biotechnology, a pioneer in functional plant genomics, announces it has entered with BP into a collaboration to develop biofeedstocks for the production of cellulosic biofuels. In addition to funding the five-year biofuels research program, BP will become a shareholder of Mendel with representation on Mendel’s Board.

Working with BP, Mendel aims to be at the forefront of seed supply into the future energy grass seed market. Mendel has already established a breeding program for perennial grass variety improvement and will accelerate this program in collaboration with BP. Mendel will establish breeding stations in the Midwest and the Southeast United States, and accelerate breeding collaborations with groups in Germany and China.

Mendel has discovered the functions of genetic switches that control many important aspects of plant growth, metabolism and stress responses. By modifying when and where these key genes are expressed within crops plants, it is possible to obtain significant improvements in plant productivity. Additionally, in many cases, knowledge of gene function enables the identification of natural or synthetic chemicals that can alter plant performance in useful ways.

The biotech company uses traditional as well as advanced (transgenic) breeding techniques to improve yields, drought and freezing tolerance, disease resistance and the efficient use of nutrients in potential biomass crops. Many of the species it is working with are unchartered terrain.

As the biofuel industry matures, new biomass feedstocks will be needed for the production of bio-derived molecules from the entire carbohydrate portion of the plant. Many (tropical) perennial grass species like miscanthus, elephant grass, switchgrass, sugarcane or sorghum are canditates for lignocellulosic biofuels. To ensure a consistent supply of feedstocks to refineries, a new seed industry is needed to provide farmers with high-yielding varieties, and a new service industry is needed to ensure the delivery of feedstocks to the refineries:
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“While the new seed and biofeedstock business will serve the needs of all biofuel refineries, having a first committed collaborator is a critical starting point.” said Neal Gutterson, Mendel’s President and Chief Executive Officer. “BP has emerged as a leader in alternative energies, including biofuels. We cannot imagine a better party to collaborate with in developing our new business.”

“Mendel has demonstrated its excellence in plant science,” said Tony Meggs, Group Vice President of Technology at BP. “This collaboration with Mendel is one example of BP’s commitment to the development of new technologies to enable the supply of new, renewable energy sources.”

Mendel Biotechnology, Inc., a closely-held private company, has been a pioneer in the application of functional genomics to the study of plant genes. Mendel has identified and patented the use of genes that control many aspects of plant growth and development, and is using such inventions to develop or co-develop new plant varieties with improved productivity and quality.

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Japan's Cosmo Oil plans biofuel plants in Philippines - range of tropical feedstocks

Just when global consultancy Frost and Sullivan says government support and the presence of a law on biofuels have turned the Philippines into one of the most attractive investment sites for biofuels projects, Japanese oil firm Cosmo Oil Co. Ltd., Japan's fourth-largest refiner, has proposed to build a €75/US$100 million bioethanol plant and a €37.6/US$50 million biodiesel processing facility in the province of Leyte, in the central part of the Philippines.

In another development, the FE Global/Asia Clean Energy Services Fund L.P. and the FEGACE Asia Sub-Fund L.P. finalized their investment in Biofuels Resources Inc. (BRI), a company established to construct ethanol plants in the Philippines. The Funds will invest jointly with BronzeOak Philippines Inc. in a series of four special purpose companies focused on ethanol production in the Philippines.

Cosmo Oil
During a recent visit, Cosmo executives made a presentation to provincial officials for the development of biofuel manufacturing plants in the province and possibly in its neighbor province Samar, says Leyte Vice-Governor Miniette Bagulaya.

For the multi-feed ethanol plant, Cosmo plans to establish plantations of high-yield tropical starch and sugar crops:
  • 34,000 hectare (84,000 acre) cassava plantation
  • 36,000 hectare (89,000 acre) sweet potato plantation
  • 76,000 hectare (188,000 acre) yam plantation
  • 40,000 hectare (99,000 acre) sugar cane plantation
Interestingly, Cosmo Oil's bioethanol plant will become the first major facility to use yams as a feedstock. Cassava and sweet potato have already become established ethanol crops.

Yam is the common name given to annual or perennial climbing plants of the Dioscorea genus, the starch-rich root crops of which are edible. Amongst hundreds of cultivars, the Dioscorea rotundata Poir. (white yam) and Dioscorea cayenensis Lam. (yellow yam) are most commonly grown. The roots of the crop can grow up to 2.5 meters in length and weigh up to 70 kg (150 pounds).

Like cassava, yams were traditionally considered to be a survival crop that can be kept in the ground and harvested at times of food scarcity. The tuber still plays a major role in food security in the 'yam belt' in West-Africa, that stretches from Côte d'Ivoire to Nigeria. The crop requires low fertilizer inputs, which is why small farmers have been growing it successfully. However, the crop remains a typically 'understudied' plant and breeding programs can improve productivity. Tuber yields currently vary from 10 up to 25 tonnes per hectare. In 2005, the Philippines produced some 29,000 tons of yams.

Copra, palm oil
Cosmo Oil's biodiesel plant will require 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of land for an oil palm plantation and 61,000 hectares (151,000 acres) for copra production from coconuts:
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Cosmo Oil said the fuel products that will be produced from the Leyte plants will be sold to local customers and exported to Japan, Australia, and Europe.

The Philippines are rapidly becoming an attractive investment hub for the South East and East Asian renewable fuel market. The country's recent biofuel legislation in combination with an active effort to attract foreign direct investment is drawing in companies from China, Japan, the EU and the US.

The island state's suitable agro-climatic conditions and its availability of land and labor plays a key role, as does its central geographical position in the region.

Amongst the most recent investors are Eastern Petroleum Corp. which teamed up with Guanxi Group of China for an ethanol project using cassava as feedstock while PNOC-Alternative Fuels Corp. is planning an ethanol plant project worth US$ 1.3 billion (on Chinese investments, see here, on PNOC's biofuel activities, here).

US firm E-Cane Fuel Corp. recently entered the sector by investing €111/US$150 million to put up a fully integrated ethanol processing facility in Central Luzon based on sugarcane.

The latest in the series is the joint FE Global/Asia Clean Energy Services Fund L.P. and FEGACE Asia Sub-Fund L.P. investment in Biofuels Resources Inc. (BRI). The Funds will investwith BronzeOak Philippines Inc. in a series of four special purpose companies focused on ethanol production in the Philippines. San Carlos Bioethanol Inc. is the first in this series of investments. The project will produce and sell 125,000 liters of ethanol daily, using sugar cane juice from local growers as a raw material. One of the most interesting aspects of the project relates to the project’s use of contracts with multiple sugar cane suppliers to secure a stable price for approximately 50% of the raw material needs of the plant.

According to Richard Roberts, Director of FE Clean Energy Group Inc., "The project has a pricing agreement for 50% of the sugar cane that will be used as a feedstock for the plant. The price of this sugar cane will be tied to the sales price of ethanol, thereby lowering the risk of diverging sugar and ethanol prices."

The SCBI project has entered into an ethanol off-take agreement with a prominent Philippine oil refiner. The contract terms provide a guaranteed floor price in USD terms.

The oil refiner’s interest in contracting for ethanol is a result of a law passed by President Arroyo in December 2006 requiring all gasoline sold in the Philippines to contain a minimum of 5% ethanol with an eventual increase to 10% blends by 2010. Richard Roberts said that the San Carlos deal is an important project for the Philippine Government since "SCBI will be the first fuel grade ethanol plant to be constructed in the Philippines."

In addition to the sale of ethanol, SCBI will generate electricity for sale to the local electricity distributor through biomass cogeneration using the bagasse from the milled sugar cane.

FE Clean Energy Group, the fund manager for the Funds, has indicated that the reason that the BRI projects are smart investments is that the future demand for bio-fuels in the Philippines should outpace the supply. The Fund’s equity funding for the project totals $7,935,000.

Image: yams are a staple food in West Africa. Credit: IITA.

More information:

Yam profile at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
Yam factsheet at the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

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Sandia researchers screen extremophile's enzymes for lignocellulosic ethanol

Researchers from Sandia National Laboratories are looking at the biology of organisms living in earth’s extreme environments to help solve the problem of breaking down lignocellulosic biomass efficiently to convert it into biofuels - the key to a new transportation economy based on abundant renewable, green fuels.

The class of microorganisms known as 'extremophiles' has triggered interest in the scientific community for their cellulase enzymes and exotic metabolisms that could be used for the conversion of biomass into a series of fuels. Earlier, microbiologists sequenced the genome of an anaerobic extremophile the metabolism of which generates hydrogen. Ultimately the findings may lead to efficient biohydrogen production (earlier post).

The scientists working in the context of an internally funded research program at Sandia National Laboratories - a U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) laboratory - aim to successfully demonstrate various computational tools and enzyme engineering methods that will make extreme enzymes relevant to the technical debate. The organism of focus is Sulfolobus solfataricus, a widely studied extremophile that thrives beneath a sulfurous cauldron in the Mediterranean.

Processing of biomass key to ethanol production
Blake Simmons, chemical engineer and project lead at Sandia’s Livermore, Calif., site, says that the primary hurdle preventing lignocellulosic ethanol from becoming a viable transportation fuel is not the availability of lignocellulosic biomass, but rather its efficient and cost-effective processing.
“Production is not a concern. More than a billion tons of biomass is estimated to be created each year in the timber and agricultural industries, as well as a variety of grasses and potential energy crops. Unfortunately, you can’t just take a tree trunk, stick it into an enzymatic reactor, and ferment the sugar produced into ethanol with any kind of efficiency. The process of turning certain lignocellulosic materials into ethanol is very difficult and costly” - Blake Simmons, chemical engineer and project leader.
The bioconversion process typically involves several pretreatment steps that break up lignocellulosic material into easily converted polymers. The laborious process typically begins by chopping the biomass to reduce its size and then delivering it into a dilute acid pretreatment reactor. The reactor then would break down the biomass into cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. The hemicellulose and cellulose polymers released from the biomass must go through additional processing and acid neutralization before the final product is recovered and placed back into an enzymatic reactor to deconstruct the polymers into fermentable sugars. Not exactly swift and efficient and very costly.

Nature’s own extreme enzymes
Enter enzymes isolated from extremophiles, which may solve this vexing processing riddle. Sandia’s current biological object of interest, said Simmons, is Sulfolobus solfataricus, an organism whose extreme enzymes were isolated and discovered years ago by the German researcher Georg Lipps and whose genome has since then been sequenced. Sulfolobus expresses cellulase enzymes that are known to exist in organisms that prosper in sulfuric acid environments and, through an inexplicable quirk of nature, efficiently break down cellulose into sugars:
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“Biology generally likes sugar,” said Simmons, “since it offers an easy energy intermediate that can be converted into some usable output.” The Sandia team members, he said, are apparently among a handful of researchers looking at enzymes expressed by Sulfolobus and manipulating them in the laboratory with the objective of processing biomass into cellulosic ethanol.

Extreme enzymes, Simmons said, can be found in a variety of locales, including hot springs, gold mines, and even within the rust found under a leaking hot water heater.

While other researchers are examining common biomass sources and attempting to express their enzymes at higher temperatures and lowered pH, Sandia has, in effect, taken the opposite approach.

“Instead of trying to create an extremozyme from sources that live in rather benign environmental conditions, why not just manipulate a real one isolated from its natural state?” asks Simmons. Sandia, he said, has brought the DNA that produces these extreme enzymes into the lab, where researchers then employ a technique called “site-directed mutagenesis” to manipulate and optimize the enzymes’ genetic sequence in hopes of improving performance. These mutations are identified using computational modeling techniques at Sandia that compare the structure and sequence of the extremozymes with their more benign counterparts to identify key genetic sequences of interest.

“The ultimate dream — and it’s only a dream right now — would be to take a poplar tree, put it into a tank, let it sit for three days, then come back and watch as the ethanol comes pouring out of the spigot,” says Simmons. “Though we’re probably decades away from that, this project aims to consolidate the pretreatment steps and get us one step closer to realizing that vision.”

Ethanol products the same, but starting material vastly different
The benefits of developing biomass-to-ethanol technology are well-known, says Grant Heffelfinger, senior manager for molecular and computational biosciences at Sandia’s Albuquerque, N.M., site and the lab’s lead on biofuels programs. He points to increased national energy security, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, use of renewable resources, and other oft-cited advantages. “But corn ethanol must compete with food markets, leaving lignocellulosic ethanol as the fuel most likely to make the most meaningful short-term impact in reducing gasoline’s stranglehold on the transportation sector,” said Heffelfinger.

Although the end product with cellulosic ethanol and corn ethanol is the same, Simmons points out, the difference is in the complexity of the starting material. While corn is a simple, starch-based material that is easily processed into fermentable sugars, cellulosic biomass consists of a cellulose polymer, wrapped within a complex vascular structure of lignin and hemicellulose and other components.

“Because lignocellulosic biomass is such a multifaceted material, we need to have a fundamental understanding of how it works,” said Simmons. While various industry researchers, he said, are investigating new technologies and facilities that will allow for the processing cellulosic biomass into ethanol, he and his Sandia colleagues are hopeful that their method can be efficiently and cheaply integrated with current and future pretreatment steps. “We believe extremophile enzymes — and the technology that demonstrates how to use them — can be a very powerful resource for the research and industrial community to draw upon,” he said.

Research expected to lead to commercial partnerships and JBEI
Simmons presented his team’s preliminary findings from the extremophile project recently at the 4th World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology & Bioprocessing. The team hopes to publish more advanced findings soon and is finalizing several proposals that could lead to further funding. The lab would be open, Simmons said, to conducting collaborative R&D with other commercial partners or research entities, or to licensing its research capabilities.

This and other efforts at Sandia National Laboratories are expected to be a vital component of the Joint Bio-Energy Institute (JBEI), a multilab/university effort to bring a Department of Energy-funded bioresearch facility to the San Francisco Bay Area. Sandia is planning a key role in that facility, which will focus on cost-effective, biologically based renewable energy sources to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.

“We believe the use of enzyme engineering to enable the next generation of ethanol biorefineries, with a focus on extremophile enzymes, is a realistic and achievable goal,” said Simmons. “But we need others to believe, too.”

Image 1: Sulfolobus solfataricus

Image 2: Biochemist Joanne Volponi prepares samples of cellulase enzymes for activity assaying in a high-throughput, fluid-handling robotic system. Sandia is demonstrating various computational tools and enzyme engineering methods that can help process cellulosic biomass (Photo by Randy Wong).

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Biofuels sector has become a major employer in Brazil

The Agência de Notícias Brasil-Arabe (ANBA) reports [*Portuguese] that the country's bioethanol sector has generated more employment than any other economic activity in recent years. And the jobs in question are not only for low skilled workers, but for graduates and post-grads as well. Technological innovations, biotech research, engineering challenges, as well as the development of entirely new bio-based products such as bioplastics from sugarcane are generating highly valued jobs.

The fact that the bioenergy industry generates jobs for highly skilled people is often taken for granted. But if universities and their programmes are an indicator of future top-of-the-pyramid employment markets, it becomes clear that the bioeconomy will transform this market across the world. In Europe, research and education in the field of bioenergy is speeding up, with major universities across the EU now offering over 60 dedicated masters and PhD programs (earlier post). France recently invited Indian students to visit the country to study and exchange experiences on biofuels and bioenergy (earlier post), whereas in the U.S. young scientists and researchers are being prepared for work in the sector via a series of special programmes.

Brazil, with its vast experience, offers us a sign of things to come. The country's biofuel industry is booming, with jobs opening in a myriad of sectors, from agronomy, sociology and logistics to engineering and biotech. In the month of April, the sugar and alcohol industry alone opened 42,000 new work positions, answering to 82% of the total generated by the transformation industry in the state of São Paulo, figures supplied by the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (Fiesp) show.

According to Francisco Lupo, a professor at the Paula Souza Center, which runs 130 state-owned technical schools in the state of São Paulo, the heating up of the labor market in the sector is due, mainly, to two factors: expansion and modernization of old mills and the opening of new units in the state.

According to figures supplied by the São Paulo Sugar Cane Agro-Industry Union (Unica), 76 mills installed in São Paulo are now operating. Up to the end of the crop, it is estimated that 158 mills will be in operation - ten more than in 2006. "To supply the global demand for ethanol, the industries have expanded, improved their processes and renewed machinery. To work with this new reality professionals must prepare themselves," Lupo concludes.

Eric Ricardo da Costa, 33, is one of them. The young man left his native city of Jaguariúna, 120 kilometers away from the southeastern Brazilian state of São Paulo, and moved to Flórida Paulista, in the same state, 600 kilometers away from the capital. He went out to search for a job in the sugar and alcohol industry. And he found one. With two completed technical courses - Electronics and Mechatronics -; he has enrolled in the third, "Technician in Sugar and Alcohol" at the Eudécio Luiz Vicente Technical School, as he believes that the career, like the sector, has a prosperous future:
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Training in the field of electronics contributed to make the student into a specialist in automation of mills, one of the main aspects in modern sugar and alcohol mills and, for this reason, greatly disputed in the labour market, mainly in the western region of the state of São Paulo.

"In the Flórida Paulista region alone (where the company in which Costa is working, Floralco, is located), in a radius of 300 kilometers, there are eight mills in operation. Up to 2010, there will be another seven," explained Costa, pleased with the possibilities that are arising.

In the last term of the technical course, in 2005, Costa started working for Floralco, in charge of automation. With the growth of the industry - which expects to process 2.2 million tons of sugarcane this year -, the student was soon promoted. In less than two years, he was assisting the manager of the entire production line in the mill.

"I develop programs for company management. The furnaces, for example, which used to be controlled by 10 men, are now monitored by just one person, sitting in front of a computer," explained Costa. Remuneration is also accompanying the market. Costa explains that he earns around R$ 2,000 (US$ 1,020) a month, a value considered very good for the region.

Another career that is in the wake of the growth of the sugar and alcohol sector is chemistry, or better, alcohol-chemistry. The training is the same as that taken by Costa, "they are chemistry technicians specialized in sugar and alcohol". The Paula Souza Center, for example, trains around 80 professionals a year.

"And, currently, they all leave the school employed," stated Francisco Lupo. Over two years the students learn to control and supervise technological processes for the production of sugar, alcohol and byproducts of the industry.

"They are also prepared to deal with the quality of all phases of the productive process and to implement national and international norms that must be followed by the sector," explained Lupo. One of the strong points of the course - which guarantees employment - is the compulsory internship for students in the last term of the course. After the internship, according to Lupo, most of them are hired.

New products, new jobs
Apart from sugar and alcohol mills, alcohol-chemists have started working in the development of new products based on cane. One of the examples is PHB Industrial, the result of a partnership between groups Irmãos Biagi and Grupo Balbo. Since 1995, the company has been producing biodegradable plastic from the fermentation of sugarcane.

According to Eduardo Brondi, the company director, the plastic may be used to make packages, medication capsules, etc. The greatest advantage is disposal. "When disposed of in nature, it is biologically active, and, with bacteria and fungi, is absorbed and once again made into carbon-dioxide and water," he stated.

The sugarcane plastic was developed through a partnership between the company and professionals in the chemical area at the University of São Paulo (USP) and the São Paulo state Institute for Technological Research (IPT). For the production of a kilogram of plastic the use of three kilograms of sugar is necessary.

Another important point, apart from production from a renewable raw material and biodegradability, is that the plastic is made in a clean manner. The energy for the process, for example, is obtained from the fiber contained in the sugarcane bagasse. The part that does not become energy or bio plastic is also used: it goes to crops, as an input.

The new product, according to the specialist, opens space for various professionals, from those working at the factory, in the production of plastic, to those at the end of the line, developing, discovering applications - in industry, fashion, design - for sugarcane plastic.

The boom of ethanol has also been moving universities, and some have even created post-graduate courses in the sector. At the College of Agriculture (Esalq), there are currently three kinds of courses in the sugar and alcohol sector: "Investment and management of agro industry", "Specialization in agricultural management" and "Specialization in industrial management".

The courses last 18 months and cost approximately 650 reais (US$ 330) per month. According to Daniel Sonoda, from Esalq, three classes have already graduated in the course in the agricultural area, three in the industrial course and one in the investment course.

"The demand for the courses has been growing significantly. One example is the agro-industrial management course, we opened 40 positions and had 80 inscriptions, we decided to open a second group in the second term," he explained.

According to Sonoda, the profile of the students is varied, but a change has been noticed in recent years. "Before it was veterans in the sector who sought this kind of learning, but now it is the professionals who recently started in the sector who are interested in it," he explains.

To supply the demand for knowledge in the sector, other courses should arise this year, according to Tiago Quintella Giuliani, Agroenergy coordinator at the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply.

According to Giuliani, the government should sign an agreement with Esalq and other universities to create more courses in the area of sugar and alcohol and also in the field of agro-energy. The date has not yet been defined, but it may be this year.

Image: at the Eudécio Luiz Vicente school, bioenergy researchers are educated.

More information:
ANBA: O álcool que emprega - June 11, 2007.

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Petrobras and partner ship first ethanol cargo to Japan

Brazil's state-owned oil company Petrobras and its associated company in Japan, Brazil-Japan Ethanol Co., Ltd. (BJE), announce they have exported the first shipment of ethanol with appropriate physicochemical characteristics for use by Japanese industries. The 73,000 liters of industrial- and food-grade ethanol reached Japan Alcohol Trading Co., LTD.'s tanks, in Kobe, Japan, on June 7.

This is the first ethanol import operation carried out since the Japanese ethanol sector was deregulated, in April 2006. The exported product's characteristics are ideal for direct use by the Japanese industry, with no need for reprocessing.

Although the volume in question was not very large, the deal was important for the companies to assess all stages involved in the logistics process, ranging from shipment from the plant in Brazil to delivery at the final customer in Japan, and its impact on the product's final quality. The operation shows Petrobras is capable of ensuring the Japanese industry's high quality standards at competitive costs.

The potential industrial ethanol market in Japan is of the order of 300,000,000 liters per year, with a high degree of quality and standardization requirements:
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Brazil and Japan have been cooperating very actively on bioenergy production and trade.

Earlier, Petrobras signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Japanese Itochu Corporation to assess bioethanol, biodiesel and bioelectricity production potential from sugarcane and oleaginous plants in the semiarid Brazilian region known as the Canal do Sertão (Wilderness Channel), located in the states of Pernambuco and Bahia.

The Canal do Sertão is a 150,000-ha region located in the performance area of the Companhia de Desenvolvimento dos Vales do São Francisco e Parnaíba (Codevasf, the São Francisco and Parnaíba Valley Development Company) and covers 16 Pernambuco towns, among which Petrolina, Ouricuri, Trindade, and Araripina, in addition to the Casa Nova municipality, in Bahia.

Relevant points covered by the MOU include the joint Petrobras, Itochu Corp., Pernambuco State Government, and Codevasf efforts to extend the benefits allowed by the growing international biofuel markets to the Brazilian semiarid region. The initiative is also aimed at promoting better area use with social, economic, and environmental gains.

The studies the memorandum foresees include planting sugarcane, jatropha, and dende in the semiarid with irrigation as the main source of water supply. The goal is to guarantee biofuel raw material production year-round, without the impact of weather seasonality other Brazilian regions are affected by.

Better future production flow logistics will also be analyzed in order to supply the Japanese and other potential international markets in a safe, competitive manner.

As Brazil steps up its ethanol output and is becoming a global supplier of biofuels, it also needs investments in infrastructures to create a smooth logistical chain. A network of dedicated ethanol pipelines is already under construction. Petrobras also announced it may purchase tankers from Brazilian shipyards to export ethanol as the company moves to quadruple foreign sales of the biofuel.

The ships would expand a plan to build 42 vessels for Rio de Janeiro-based Petrobras's fleet of tankers as increased oil, gas and biofuels production transforms Brazil from an energy importer into an energy exporter, said Sergio Machado, head of Transpetro, the company's transportation unit.

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New York City to heat its buildings with biofuels

New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a new green initiative for the metropolis: using biofuel to heat city buildings. The initiative is part of PLANYC 2030 that aims to green the megacity, make it hyper-efficient, less carbon intensive and more liveable.

By next year, 30 percent of heating oil purchased for city buildings will use B5 — a compound that has 5 percent biofuel.

Based on Fiscal Year 2007 numbers for city heating oil purchases, that would equal roughly 13 million gallons (49.2 million liters) of B5, or 600,000 gallons (2.3 million liters) of pure biofuel. Once the city tests its boilers on B5, it hopes to convert to using B20 — which uses 20 percent biofuel — by 2012, the mayor said.

“How much of a difference would it make?” Bloomberg asked. “The B20 blend emits 85 percent less soot than standard heating oil.” The mayor also said the initiative would help local farmers, since many grow soybeans, a crop used for biofuels.

Biodiesel mixes up to B20 can by used in home heating systems without requiring modifications to burners.

The mayor’s goal is to cut carbon emissions emitted by city government by 30 percent over the next 10 years. In his sustainability plan, he called on the rest of the city to cut that percentage of carbon emissions by 2030.

To that end, City Councilman David Yassky plans to introduce legislation called the Bioheat Act of 2007 at the next City Council meeting. It calls for the gradual phase-in of the biodiesel mix in home heating oil citywide, requiring B5 be used in 2009 and then B20 starting in 2013:
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The biofuel initiative was launched at the time Farm Aid 2007 was announced, a series of concerts and cultural events aimed at tying city-life to rural life and to raise funds to help rural families. New York City hosts this year's edition.

A Homegrown Festival will take place on Randall's Island on September 9th. This is first time that the annual benefit concert is coming to New York to raise funds to support family farming and to promote food from family farms. The Mayor, Willie Nelson and John Mellecamp were joined by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, City Council Members Simcha Felder, James Vacca and David Yassky, State Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Patrick Hooker, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, Council on the Environment Executive Director Marcel Van Ooyen, Farm Aid Executive Director Carolyn Mugar, Greenmarket farmer Zaid Kurdieh and several farmers from the Union Square Greenmarket at the announcement in Union Square Park.

"The City strongly supports sustainable family farming through our Greenmarket program - which has nearly doubled its locations over the past five years - and it's an honor to be hosting Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Farm Aid for their 2007 concert," said Mayor Bloomberg. "We are also going to further support farmers through our plan to increase our use of biofuel, a greener, cleaning burning fuel that will help us achieve our goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030. In addition to requiring the use of B5 biofuel blend by next year, I look forward to working with the City Council on more comprehensive biofuel legislation in the coming months."

"Farm Aid is coming to New York because your enthusiasm for family farm food is keeping family farmers on the land," said Farm Aid President Willie Nelson. "We are thankful to Mayor Bloomberg, the City Council, and the many activists here who are leading efforts so that every New Yorker has access to more food from family farms."

"Things change when we all take personal responsibility for our food and where it comes from," said Farm Aid board member John Mellencamp. "Farm Aid is a force for change that works hard to keep farmers on the land so that we'll have good food on our tables."

Since its beginning, Farm Aid has traveled the country, staging annual concerts and supporting local organizations working to strengthen family farms. Farm Aid builds the Good Food Movement by connecting people with family farmers who are increasing the supply of local, humanely raised, sustainable and organic food.

"Farm Aid presents this homegrown festival to welcome everyone to a day of music for family farmers and to promote fresh healthy food for all," said Executive Director Mugar. "Each Farm Aid artist comes to the show and donates their performances because they know that family farmers are America's best source for our food and renewable energy and the best protectors of our soil and water."

Farm Aid's mission is to build a vibrant family farm centered system of agriculture in America. Farm Aid artists and board members Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews host an annual concert to raise funds to support Farm Aid's work with family farmers and to inspire people to choose family farmed food. Since 1985, Farm Aid has raised over $30 million to support programs that help farmers thrive, expand the reach of the Good Food Movement, take action to change the current system of industrial agriculture and promote food from family farms.

The City's Greenmarket program supports roughly 180 local farmers at 47 locations throughout the City, a 67% increase in locations since 2001. More than 80% of Greenmarket farmers say they would go out of businesses if it weren't for Greenmarkets.

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Summertime prompts algae company to demonstrate its technology

Quicknote bioenergy technology
PetroSun, Inc., an algae-to-biofuels company announced today that it will conduct a three-day algae-to-biodiesel demonstration at its facilities near Auburn, Alabama. The event is currently being scheduled for early August 2007 and will be by invitation only. Participants will be required to execute Secrecy / Nondisclosure Agreements prior to admittance to the demonstration site.

The purpose of the event will be to demonstrate to the alternative energy and transportation fuel industries that the cultivation of algae, extraction of algal oil and the conversion to a biofuel are possible on a commercial scale. PetroSun will provide algal oil samples and analysis to participants prior to the event for their independent studies. A diesel truck engine will be operated during the three-day demonstration from algae biodiesel produced by the company.

Like others, we are sceptical of algae technology, with reason. Most of the algae companies have never proved that the technology works on a continuous basis and/or on a large scale. Some of them have seriously disappointed investors because their claims will never materialise and they have been postponing demonstrations indefinitely. Still other algae companies seem to drop press releases on a monthly basis, while in silence they are investing in ordinary terrestrial energy crops or announce fantasy concepts (just to get press attention). Some scientists go so far as to say that all of the algae companies' claims simply contradict the most basic laws of physics [*.pdf].

The fact is that decades of fundamental research showed that the micro-organisms can not deliver any serious amount of energy. Lots of data from the 1970s and 1980s are available that can be compared to PetroSun's trials (an overview).

Interestingly, it is no coincidence PetroSun's trials take place in the hottest and sunniest summer month of the year. Like any photosynthetic organism, the amount and intensity of sunlight determines the amount of energy that is produced in its cells.

For algae, biomass productivities can be very high in summertime (with peaks of up to 37.5g/m²/per day), but drop in wintertime to negligable productivities as low as 3g/m²/day. Very few trials have ever been successfully carried out for longer than a year (most cultures became contaminated or unstable after a few days or weeks and had to be discontinued). When grown continuously during an entire year including during the autumn, winter and spring months with their low productivities, and in optimal, sunny locations (like the Negev Desert), maximum average productivities recorded in the many trials of the 1970s and 1980s were 51.1 tons of biomass per hectare, well below the productivity of ordinary terrestrial energy crops like sugarcane. Average yields were around 30 tons/ha/year:
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With these data in mind, it will be interesting to see how well PetroSun's algae perform. The researchers from the past have often written that the maximum yields (50 tonnes/ha/year) were too low to make algae based biofuels competitive with oil at record oil prices (which stood at US$ 80/barrel back then). Costs had to come down by a factor of between 5 and 20. Since the discontinuation of most algae-biofuel research in the 1990s, there have been no major biotech breakthroughs in the field.

PetroSun's trial is important but it must be stressed that a three day trial says nothing about the capacity of the technology to grow algae continuously for a whole year, and year after year, including during the winter season that seams to be a major barrier to algae-culture.

It is not clear whether PetroSun's trials will be with algae grown in open raceway ponds or in closed photobioreactors. If the latter is the case, we can dismiss the technology out of hand immediately. There was a scientific consensus in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, both in Europe, the US and Japan, that such expensive bioreactors can never be cost-effective. Open ponds were seen as the only viable option, but came with many drawbacks (such as contamination with rival organisms and pollution).

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U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy announce new US$ 18 million sollicitation for biomass R & D

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) granted a total of US$ 8.3 million for 11 bioenergy research projects (previous post). Today both departments announced that for fiscal year 2007 another US$18 million will be available for research and development of biomass-based products, biofuels, bioenergy and related processes.

USDA and DOE are issuing these grant solicitations for several types of projects aimed at increasing the availability of alternative and renewable fuels, which will help further President Bush's bold energy initiatives, including Twenty in Ten. The Twenty in Ten Initiative promotes greater energy security through increased efficiency and diversification of energy sources. USDA will provide up to US$14 million and DOE will provide up to US$4 million.

The solicitation will fund projects in the following four categories (the share of overall funding is noted in parenthesis): the development of technologies to convert cellulosic biomass into intermediaries for biobased fuels (45 percent); product diversification (30 percent); feedstock production (20 percent); and analysis for strategic guidance (5 percent):
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Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns cited how research and development (R&D) efforts outlined in past grant awards could develop technology that support the goals of the President's 20 in 10 Initiative. In Indiana and Illinois, researchers from both the pubic and private sector are working to improve dry mill fractionation. The goal is to increase ethanol production from corn and, as a by-product of that, to produce protein additives for cattle feed. It is anticipated that ethanol production estimates could increase significantly if this research is successful and implemented within the dry mill fractionation process. When this technology is implemented, energy savings annually are estimated at about 1,500 billion BTU's per dry mill. In addition, penetration at a level of 70% of the dry mills with this technology could produce an additional 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol from corn and an additional production of 130 million barrels of biodiesel.

Reducing U.S. reliance imported sources of energy is one of President Bush's top priorities. In effort to break America's addiction to oil, the President's Farm Bill proposal includes US$1.6 billion in new renewable energy funding for USDA. It seeks US$500 million over 10 years to expand the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Program, US$500 million for bioenergy and biobased research, and US$210 million to support US$2.1 billion in loan guarantees for energy efficiency measures, with a significant focus on cellulosic ethanol.

Since 2002, USDA has awarded US$58.1 million in grants to 55 projects in 27 states and the District of Columbia under the Biomass Research and Development Initiative. Since the beginning of 2007, DOE has announced nearly $1 billion in funding for biofuels R&D.

Maximum award amounts will not exceed US$1 million. Eligible applicants include state and federal research agencies, national laboratories, private-sector groups and nonprofit organizations. Consortia of two or more groups also are encouraged to apply. The closing date for pre-applications is July 11, 2007.

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Joint Genome Institute announces 2008 genome sequencing targets with focus on bioenergy and carbon cycle

The U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) has announced the latest Community Sequencing Program (CSP) portfolio. These plant and microbial targets - most with implications for bioenergy and the carbon cycle - total some 21 billion nucleotides of DNA sequence capacity allocated to public projects submitted through the CSP for fiscal year 2008.

The efforts are carried out by international teams of scientists and deal with plants and organisms that are candidates for biomass energy, for the conversion of biomass into biofuels and for bioremediation.

Among the highest profile and largest of these projects, with a 600-million-nucleotide genome, is the genome of the tropical eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus grandis) - geared to the generation of resources for renewable biomass energy. This sequencing effort is led by Alexander Myburg of the University of Pretoria, South Africa, with Gerald Tuskan of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (and DOE JGI), and Dario Grattapaglia, of EMBRAPA Genetic Resources and Biotechnology (Brazil). The proposal for this project to DOE JGI comes from the International Eucalyptus Genome Consortium (IEuGC), supported by 62 letters from 55 organizations in 15 countries.

The biomass production and carbon sequestration capacities of eucalyptus trees match DOE's and the U.S. interests in alternative energy production and global carbon cycling. The consortium of eucalyptus draws upon the expertise from dozens of institutions and hundreds of researchers worldwide.

Eucalyptus has a very large bioenergy potential in the tropics, as was recently shown in an EU study indicating the amount of suitable non-forest land for the crop. In Central Africa and Brazil alone, some 92 million hectares of land are available where the crop can be grown sustainably (earlier post).

A major challenge for the achievement of a sustainable energy future is the understanding of the molecular basis of superior growth and adaptation in woody plants suitable for biomass production. Eucalyptus species are among the fastest growing woody plants in the world and, at approximately 18 million hectares in 90 countries, the most widely planted genus of plantation forest trees in the world. Eucalyptus is also listed as one of the U.S. Department of Energy's candidate biomass energy crops.

Genome sequencing is essential for understanding the basis of eucalyptus's superior properties and to compare and contrast them with other species. The unique evolutionary history, keystone ecological status, and adaptation to marginal sites make eucalyptus an excellent focus for expanding knowledge of the evolution and adaptive biology of perennial plants. The eucalyptus genome, the second tree to be sequenced, will also provide extraordinary opportunities for comparative genomic analysis with the poplar, the first ever tree sequenced by an international team of scientists, including those of the DOE JGI last year (previous post):
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Foxtail millet
The second largest CSP project selected for 2008 is foxtail millet (Setaria italica), led by researchers at the University of Georgia, the University of Florida, the University of Missouri, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service - Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and the University of Tennessee.

Foxtail millet, a forage crop, is a close relative of several prospective biofuel crops, including switchgrass, napiergrass, sorghum and pearl millet. It is grown extensively in East Asia, Africa and India. In the U.S., pearl millet is grown on some 1.5 million acres. It is envisioned that pearl millet would be useful as a supplement or replacement for corn in ethanol plants in regions that suffer from drought and low-fertility soils.

Carbon cycle and algae
The third largest genome project to be taken on by DOE JGI in 2008 is the marine red alga Porphyra purpurea. The ocean plays a key role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with the help of marine photosynthetic organisms like Porphyra consuming the carbon and releasing oxygen. Porphyra species are among the most common algae in the intertidal and subtidal zones of temperate rocky shores in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Understanding the effects of elevated climatic stresses on photosynthetic organisms would benefit from genome-enabled studies of carbon fixation in Porphyra, because of this organism's great diversity of light-harvesting and photo-protective strategies.

The CSP will pursue eight smaller eukaryotic projects in 2008, using both traditional Sanger sequencing and next-generation pyrosequencing technology. These projects include the following:
  • Paxillus involutus: Over 75 percent of the carbon in terrestrial ecosystems is stored in forests. More than half of this carbon is found in soil organic matter (SOM). Recent studies have indicated that ectomycorrhizal fungi like Paxillus provide the dominant pathway through which carbon enters the SOM. These fungi are also known to protect plants from toxic metals. Thus, the development of metal-tolerant fungal associations would provide a strategy for active remediation of metal-contaminated soils.
  • Two species of Phaeocystis phytoplankton: The Phaeocystis genus contributes approximately 10 percent of annual global marine primary photosynthetic production, equivalent to four billion metric tons of carbon dioxide captured or "fixed" annually--reinforcing its importance for the study of the global carbon cycle and carbon sequestration.
  • The leaf-degrading fungus Agaricus bisporus: Genomic studies of A. bisporus target enhanced understanding of the mechanisms employed for efficient conversion of lignocellulose--crucial for the production of fuels and products from renewable biomass.
  • The first ciliated protozoan genome, Tetrahymena thermophila: A microbial model organism for discovering fundamental principles of eukaryotic biology, it will allow improved construction and stability of cell lines for the over-expression of proteins, including cellulase enzymes to overcome the limiting hurdle of biomass-to-biofuel production and metal-chelating proteins to enhance the already superior capacity of ciliates for bioremediation of toxic heavy metals in industrial effluents.
  • Pine and Conifer EST resource: expressed sequence tags (ESTs) are fragments of DNA sequence that serve as a tool for the identification of genes and prediction of their protein products and their function. Conifer forests are among the most productive in terms of annual lignocellulosic biomass generation, and coniferous trees are the preferred feedstock for much of the forest products industry. Climate change and exotic forest pests are threatening conifer populations. Breeding programs to improve conifers will benefit from access to this genomic resource.
  • The soybean pathogen Heterodera glycines: Soybean is a major oil, feed, and export crop, with $17 billion annually in unprocessed crop value in the U.S. alone. Soy biodiesel is a leading contender for a renewable, alternative vehicle fuel with a high energy density. Soybean has the environmental and energy advantage of not requiring the use of nitrogen fertilizer. H. glycines is the most significant pathogen of soybean in the U.S.; thus, sequencing its genome would aid in the development of control strategies and directly contribute to soybean yield enhancement.
  • The liverwort, Marchantia polymorpha: The origin of land plants is acknowledged as one of the major evolutionary events in the earth's history. Experimental, paleontological, morphological, and molecular systematic data all point to the liverworts as being among the first plants to evolve and colonize the landscape. Thus, liverworts are a key group to include in any comparative study aimed at understanding the origin and evolution of organisms that now cover much of terrestrial earth.
Microbes for bioprocessing
DOE JGI and its collaborators have pioneered the emerging discipline of metagenomics - isolating, sequencing, and characterizing DNA extracted directly from environmental samples - to obtain a genomic and metabolic profile of the microbial community residing in a particular environment. In addition to adding 54 different microbial isolate genomes to the production sequencing queue in 2008, DOE JGI will work with large communities of collaborators to take on four important metagenomic projects.
  • Anammox bacteria: Anammox bacteria are able to synthesize the rocket fuel hydrazine from ammonia and hydroxylamine. Insight into the genes and proteins involved in this reaction may be the basis for further optimization of the production of this potent fuel in a suitable biological system. Also, anammox bacteria are responsible for about 50 percent of the processing of ammonia to nitrogen gas in the ocean. In marine ecosystems, the carbon and nitrogen cycles are closely connected. More information about the regulation and mechanism of CO2 sequestration by anammox bacteria in the ocean will contribute to our understanding of the global biogeochemical cycles and their impact on climate change.
  • Biogas-degrading community: It is estimated that 236 million tons of municipal solid waste is produced annually in the U.S., 50 percent of which is biomass. Converting organic waste to renewable biofuel represents an appealing option to exploit this potential resource. In California alone, it is estimated that 22 million tons of organic waste is generated annually, which if converted by microbial digestion, could produce biogas equivalent to 1.3 million gallons of gasoline per day. Yet little is known about the microorganisms involved and their biology. This study aims to optimize the anaerobic digestion process and promote conversion of biomass into biofuel.
  • Accumulibacter population genomics: Enhanced biological phosphorus removal (EBPR) is a wastewater treatment process used throughout the world to protect surface waters from accelerated stagnation and depletion of oxygen. EBPR can be unreliable and often requires expensive backup chemical treatments to protect sensitive receiving waters. This project will shed light on the microbial population dynamics leading to better use and management of these important environmental systems.
  • Genomics of Yellowstone geothermal environments: The hot pools of Yellowstone National Park harbor a mostly unexplored treasure-trove of extremeophiles, microbes that thrive in extreme conditions. These communities represent a rich opportunity to identify enzymes or processes that promise to advance biofuels and nanomaterial science applications.
Established in 2005, the Community Sequencing Program (CSP) provides the scientific community at large with access to high-throughput sequencing by DOE JGI for projects of relevance to DOE missions. Sequencing projects are chosen based on scientific merit - judged through independent peer review - and relevance to issues in bioenergy, global carbon cycling, and bioremediation.

More information:
DOE JGI: DOE Joint Genome Institute Announces 2008 Genome Sequencing Targets - June 8, 2007.

The full list of the CSP 2008 sequencing projects can be found here.

The International Eucalyptus Genome Network.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Carbon negative biofuels and biochar win UN World Environment Day Award

Biomass pyrolysis and carbon sequestration technology developed by Australian researchers along with Best Energies - hailed as one of the most important technologies available for stabilizing the world’s climate - has been chosen by the United Nations Association of Australia as the winner of their World Environment Day Awards category, ‘Meeting the Greenhouse Challenge’, along with project partners, the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries.

A revolutionary synergy
The group of researchers demonstrated (earlier post) that biofuels can help mitigate climate change by making use of a carbon sequestration technique known as 'terra preta'. The idea is relatively simple: a stream of biomass is converted into liquid biofuels (bio-oil and their refined products) via pyrolysis, whereas the biochar (agrichar) that is co-produced in the process is ploughed into agricultural soils, which get a boost in fertility and water absorption capacities.

The result is that the biofuels become carbon negative - which means their use can take historic CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere - while the (energy) crops grown on biochar improved soils that now act as carbon sinks see their yields increase. The team's research showed a spectacular doubling and even tripling of yields from crops grown on such 'dark earth' soils.

Adriana Downie, who accepted the award for Best Energies, said the commercial uptake of the Best pyrolysis technology will result in significant carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas mitigation. “Adoption of the technology will deliver long-term sustainability benefits of increased soil health and therefore agricultural productivity.”

The slow pyrolysis technology developed by Best Energies is particularly exciting because it not only produces a renewable energy to displace the use of fossil fuels, but it also produces a very stable form of solid carbon which can be sequestered over the long term in soils.

This process has been developed by Best Energies with support from the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change and involves heating green waste or other biomass without oxygen to generate renewable energy and a high carbon char product. Best Energies has a fully integrated pilot plant operating at their demonstration site at Somersby, on the Central Coast of NSW:
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“Once the high carbon char product, agrichar, is added as an amendment to agricultural soils, some of the most remarkable and promising benefits of this technology become apparent,” said Adriana Downie, Technical Manager for BEST Energies Australia. Experiments conducted by the NSW Department of Primary Industries have demonstrated that the char product can improve several soil health indicators as well as increase crop yields and productivity.

NSW DPI research scientist, Dr Lukas Van Zwieten, has found that when applied at 10 tonnes per hectare, the biomass of wheat was tripled and of soybeans was more than doubled. Van Zwieten said the char product also decreases emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from soils and increases the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizers.

NSW Primary Industries Minister, Ian Macdonald said this new process offers hope for using soils as a carbon “sink”.

Tim Flannery, Australian of the Year, renowned scientist, environmentalist, and author of The Weather Makers, is a major advocate of char and pyrolysis. In The Bulletin magazine, Flannery recently listed “fostering pyrolysis-based technologies” fourth among his five steps for saving the planet.

The UN Association award winners for World Environment Day were announced at a ceremony in Melbourne, Australia on Friday June 1.

Based in Madison, Wisconsin, Best Energies is focused on leading the development of clean energy solutions all based on renewable bio-resources. Best has formed a family of companies that provide integrated bioenergy solutions around the world where biomass is available and energy is needed.

In a similar development, biomass-to-liquids company Dynamotive earlier announced it is taking part in a comparable project. In contrast to Best Energies, Dynamotive develops fast-pyrolysis conversion technologies, which use higher temperatures. But like its counter-part, slow pyrolysis, an agrichar is obtained in this process too, making it possible to produce carbon negative biofuels by sequestring that biochar into soils (earlier post).

Large potential
A major advantage of the 'terra preta' technique is that it is quite low-tech. In contrast to other carbon sequestration technologies - such as 'carbon capture and storage' (CCS) from coal plants - the technique can be implemented on a vast scale in the developing world. Especially in the tropics and the subtropics, where soils are often nutrient-deficient, the application of biochar could yield multiple benefits.

Farmers in the South would thus become producers of carbon negative biofuels, while at the same time using their soils as carbon sinks that stimulate crop growth.

In contrast to CCS, which requires large and expensive infrastructures and are coupled to large, centralised power stations, biomass pyrolysis plants can be taken up in a decentralised biofuel production strategy and coupled to local soil improvement plans.

NSW DPI environmental scientist Steve Kimber shows one of the chambers used to monitor greenhouse gases emitted from the Wollongbar trial plot. Credit: NSW DPI.

More information:
Pollution Online: BEST Energies Wins UN World Environment Day Award - June 11, 2007.

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China mulls switch to non-food crops for ethanol

China may entirely switch to non-food energy crops such as cassava, sweet potato, sorghum and cellulose crops (grasses, trees) for the production of ethanol fuel as a substitute for petroleum, a government official said, reiterating considerations expressed earlier. The development of second-generation biofuel technologies will be encouraged, whereas first-generation fuels will be phased out gradually.

The People's Republic considers a moratorium on approvals for ethanol projects that rely on the use of food grains such as corn, an official of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) told a seminar on China's fuel ethanol development held in Beijing on Saturday. "Food-based ethanol fuel will not be the direction for China," said Xu Dingming, vice director of the Office of the National Energy Leading Group, who was also at the seminar. At the same event, an official of the NDRC also announced the country may discontinue coal-to-liquids projects because they are energy intensive and contribute greatly to carbon dioxide emissions (earlier post).

China has been trying to avoid occupation of arable land, consumption of large amounts of grain and damages to the environment in developing the renewable energies. This is in line with expectations. Scientists have found that, contrary to Latin America, Africa and South East Asia & the Pacific (with Australia), China has a small biofuel production potential (previous post). Given the large potential for international biofuels trade, the People's Republic may thus become an importer of sustainable biofuels produced in other countries.

Currently there are four enterprises engaged in producing corn-based ethanol in China. They would be asked to switch to non-food materials gradually, according to the NDRC official who declined to be named:
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The four enterprises are located in Jilin, Heilongjiang, Henan and Anhui and have a combined production capacity of 1.02 million tons of corn-based ethanol per year.

The country has become a big producer and consumer of ethanol fuel in the world after the United States, Brazil and European Union, according to the NDRC official.

China Oil and Food Corporation (COFCO), the country's largest oil and food importer and exporter, would focus on sorghum in the production of non-food-based ethanol fuel, said Yu Xubo, president of COFCO at the seminar.

COFCO, which owns the Heilongjiang enterprise and has a twenty-percent stake in the Anhui enterprise, aims to produce five million tons of ethanol fuel based on sorghum in the near future.

COFCO is also leading the way in developing cellulosic ethanol fuel under a cooperation agreement with Denmark-based Novozymes, world leader on research into the key enzymes needed in large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol. The current cost for producing ethanol fuel from cellulosic biomass, often residues which are discarded by farmers, is still too high. Novozymes is working on the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol both in the United States and China.

"We are optimistic about China's prospect of making it work ahead of the U.S., as the cost of collecting the stalks of corn are much cheaper in China," said Steen Riisgaard, president and CEO of Novozymes.

There is much opposition both in China and in the world to corn-based ethanol fuel, which is believed will lead to higher corn price. Many non-food crops are available for the production of biofuels, as well as vast tracts of land in the subtropics and the tropics that can be used to grow energy crops.

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Researchers make biodegradable films from biofuel and dairy byproducts

The search for innovative uses of biofuel byproducts continues. This is crucial to ensure biobased fuels become more commercially viable. Scientists from the U.S. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) announce they have developed biodegradable protective films from combining both dairy and biofuel production residues.

The technology was developed by research leader Peggy M. Tomasula and her colleagues at the ARS Eastern Regional Research Center's Dairy Processing and Products Research Unit in Wyndmoor. They found that combining the milk protein casein with water and glycerol, a byproduct of biodiesel production, produces a water-resistant film that can be used as an edible coating for food products.

Because of increased biodiesel production, glycerol (glycerine) is beginning to flood the market, and urgently needs new uses. For each liter of biodiesel produced, some 10% glycerine is obtained. Researchers are examining its use as a cattle and poultry feed, but also found it makes for a good feedstock for biogas production. It may also be a starting product for the manufacture of green specialty chemicals such as propylene glycol.

Its use as an ingredient in edible bioplastic films is the latest application in this series. To make the films, the scientists used carbon dioxide as an environmentally friendly solvent to isolate dairy proteins from milk, instead of harsh chemicals or acids that can be difficult to dispose of, according to Tomasula. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is another byproduct of the glucose fermentation that is used to make ethanol. Using CO2 makes the edible film more water-resistant and biodegradable.

The resulting food coatings are glossy, transparent and completely edible. Like conventional food packaging, edible films can extend the shelf life of many foods, protect products from damage, prevent exposure to moisture and oxygen and improve appearance. By using renewable resources instead of petrochemicals, the scientists can create more biodegradable products and reduce waste:
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Tomasula has been working with food technologist Kirsten L. Dangaran and chemist Phoebe X. Qi to improve the appearance and protective properties of the casein films.

At one point in the production process, CO2 dissolves into the milk, decreasing its pH level and causing casein to form particles of a substance known as CO2-casein. The researchers found that decreasing the size of the CO2-casein particles improved the films' ability to block moisture and increased their glossiness.

They also found that coating a low-density polyethylene film with the CO2-casein increased the film's ability to block oxygen permeation. Adjustments like these could make the films more competitive with existing, less eco-friendly products.

Bioplastics from whey
Earlier other researchers from the ARS patented a bioplastic production process based on the utilization of whey, the liquid byproduct that remains after curds from cheesemaking coagulate. Whey is used in a range of products such as candy, pasta, baked goods, animal feed—and even pharmaceuticals. Some 1 billion pounds of the byproduct are produced each year in the U.S. alone.

ARS’s Dairy Processing and Products Research Unit at the Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) showed that whey can also be used to create eco-friendly products. For example, using a process called 'reactive extrusion', food technologist Charles Onwulata supplements polyethylene—a common nonbiodegradable plastic—with whey proteins.

Reactive extrusion involves forcing plastic material through a heating chamber, where it melts and combines with a chemical agent that strengthens it before it’s molded into a new shape. Onwulata showed that by combining dairy proteins with starch during this process, it’s possible to create a biodegradable plastic product that can be mixed with polyethylene and molded into utensils.

Working with laboratory chief Seiichiro Isobe, of the Japanese National Food Research Institute, Onwulata created a bioplastic blend by combining whey protein isolate, cornstarch, glycerol, cellulose fiber, acetic acid, and the milk protein casein and molded the material into cups. Onwulata observed that dairy-based bioplastics were more pliable than other bioplastics, making them easier to mold.

Bioplastic blends can replace only about 20 percent of the polyethylene in a product, so resulting materials are only partially biodegradable. But Onwulata and his colleagues are currently applying this process to polylactide (PLA), a biodegradable polymer.

“Blending dairy-based bioplastics with PLA could eventually allow producers to make completely biodegradable materials,” he says.

Biofuels from whey
In another development, researchers from Germany announced a while ago they collaborated with a dairy products company to make ethanol from whey, the byproduct of cheese and casein.

This means milk and its byproducts, in combination or not with a biodiesel byproduct, opens up a new series of bioplastics and renewable, green fuels.

Image 1: A continuous biodegradable protein film begins to form using the new ARS film-making process. Photo by Paul Pierlott, USDA-ERRC/VGT.

Image 2: Food technologist Charles Onwulata inspects molded dairy bioplastic made from surplus whey proteins. Photo by Peggy Greb.

More information:
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, ARS: Edible Films Made From Dairy, Biofuel Byproducts - June 5, 2007.

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, ARS: Make Whey for Progress New Uses for Dairy Byproducts - June 8, 2007.

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, ARS: Dairy Byproducts Can Supplement Plastic - May 1, 2007.

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European ministers outline new energy strategy for transport

At their recent Council (June 8), European Transport Ministers announced [*.pdf] the transport sector is going to feel the heat of stringent EU regulation in order to combat climate change. A new strategy is aimed at drastically reducing the environmental footprint of the sector. For the first time ministers expanded the proposal to use biofuels to all modes of mobility, including air and maritime transport.

Given the expected growth rates in transport in the EU – approximately 50% between 2000 and 2020 in the freight sector alone – the Council believes that the priorities for a European energy strategy for transport are as follows:
  • improving the energy efficiency of all modes of transport
  • increasing the use of alternative and renewable fuels along with efficient drive trains
  • designing instruments to promote transport user behaviour that is energy conscious and climate change conscious
  • promoting integrated transport systems and planning to minimise energy use in transport
In addition to enhancing efficiency within the individual modes of transport, and with a view to achieving shifts, where appropriate, to more environmentally friendly modes of transport, the Council also considers intermodal measures necessary.

With these strategies in mind, the transport sector "has to make its significant contribution" to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and slashing energy consumption by 20% by 2020 the European transport ministers stressed.

Sustainable biofuels key
For all modes of transport - road, rail, air and marine - the Council supports the introduction of renewable and biogenic fuels such as biodiesel, ethanol, biogas and next-generation fuels made from biomass. On biofuels in general, the ministers said:
  • they support the amendment of the Fuel Quality Directive (earlier post) so that the blending of certain biogenic components in conventional fuel can be extended
  • they welcome the dynamic development of the biofuels market, but they do point out that this development must not lead to consequences that are undesirable in terms of the environment, climate change, the economy or society, and therefore request the Commission to submit, as soon as possible, a proposal on the certification of biofuels on the basis of sustainability criteria and their contribution to reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions
  • such criteria should be designed in a simple, operational manner that avoids any side-effects in the form of unjustified barriers to trade
  • in view of the ambitious EU targets for biofuels, the council considered that further Community focus should be given to the demonstration of second-generation production technologies and therefore urges the Commission to investigate ways to stimulate such demonstration plants. Transport ministers reaffirmed the need for a sizeable portion of the research funds of the Commission’s 7th Framework Research Programme to be used for such developments
Note the recognition by the Council of the tension between sustainability criteria for biofuels and barriers to trade.

Biofuels are only part of the strategies announced to reduce greenhouse gases from the trasport sector. Alongside the need (to fund) increased efficiency and measures to cap CO2 emissions from cars and ships, and to include aviation in its carbon emissions-trading scheme, the Council also called for maritime shipping, inland waterways and railways to take up a larger share of freight transport and said that further efforts were necessary to strengthen these modes of transport against road and air.

Air transport and biofuels
In a new development, the Council for the first time suggested "that thorough consideration be given to assessing the technical and economic feasibility and the environmental implications of using alternative and renewable fuels." Alternative jet fuels have only recently gained attention from researchers, producers, and airlines, with bio-jet fuel ('biokerosene') taking growing importance:
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The ministers stressed however that "ensuring safety should be the key issue when considering the feasibility of such fuels for air transport."

Maritime transport and biofuels
Likewise, cleaner fuels are encouraged for use in the maritime sector. The reduction of sulphur, NOX and particulate emissions is also required in the inland waterway transport sector to ensure that, in the future, it has better opportunities in the competition between modes, not only as an energy-efficient but also as an environmentally sound alternative.

Ministers welcomed the fact that the Commission has proposed a further reduction of the percentage of sulphur as part of the amendment to the Fuels Directive, but suggests that consideration should be given to whether this should take place in several stages.

"At the same time, the possibility of blending biogenic fuels with "conventional" fuels should also be examined."

Efficiency and competitiveness
Notwithstanding the critical role of biofuels in all transport modes, trains and ships will also have to become more efficient as such said ministers, adding that infrastructure-charging will be key to ensuring that each individual transport mode bears the full cost of its "ecological footprint". The Commission is due to present a general model to calculate this by June 2008.

The energy strategy for transport should not lead to a significant impact on mobility within Europe, stressed ministers, adding that "only fair and cost-efficient measures will be realised" and that, in the long run, they will make European industry even more competitive.

Nevertheless, large swathes of the industry remain to be convinced, fearing that Europe’s solitary fight against climate change could in fact reduce the continent's competitiveness by raising the price of cars and air travel, shattering these all-important industries for the European economy.

More information:
Transport Council: Conclusions on a European energy strategy for transport, June 8, 2007.

Euractiv: Ministers place transport in the eye of climate-change storm - June 11, 2007.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Scientists: GM crops can play role in sustainable agriculture

Genetically modified (GM) crops may contribute to increased productivity in sustainable agriculture, according to a major study published in the June 8 issue of the journal Science. The research analyzes, for the first time, environmental impact data from field experiments all over the world, involving corn and cotton plants with a Bt gene inserted for its insecticidal properties.

The analysis [*abstract] was conducted by scientists at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, The Nature Conservancy, and Santa Clara University. The study is accompanied by a searchable global database for agricultural and environmental scientists studying the effects of genetically engineered crops ("Nontarget Effects of Bt Crops" database).

Biotechnology and genetic engineering are controversial because of concerns about risks to human health and biodiversity, but few analyses exist that reveal the actual effects genetically modified plants have on other non-modified species. In an analysis of 42 field experiments, scientists found that this particular modification, which causes the plant to produce an insecticide internally, can have an environmental benefit because large-scale insecticide spraying can be avoided. Organisms such as ladybird beetles, earthworms, and bees in locales with “Bt crops” fared better in field trials than those within locales treated with chemical insecticides.
“This is a groundbreaking study and the first of its kind to evaluate the current science surrounding genetically modified crops. The results are significant for how we think about technology and the future of sustainable agriculture.” - Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy
According to lead author, Michele Marvier, of Santa Clara University, says the research for the first time provides an answer the question: do Bt crops have effects on beneficial insects and worms? The answer is that it depends to a large degree upon the type of comparison one makes. When Bt crops are compared to crops sprayed with insecticides, the Bt crops come out looking quite good. But when Bt crops are compared to crops without insecticides, there are reductions of certain animal groups that warrant further investigation. What is clear is that the advantages or disadvantages of GM crops depend on the specific goals and vision for agroecosystems:
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As NCEAS Director, Jim Reichman explains, “This important study by an interdisciplinary research team reveals how an in-depth analysis of large quantities of existing data from many individual experiments can provide a greater understanding of a complex issue. The project is enhanced by the creation of a public database, Nontarget Effects of Bt Crops, developed by NCEAS ecoinformatics expert, Jim Regetz, that will allow other scientists to conduct congruent analyses.”

But GM crops are not only controversial for environmental reasons. Scientists have found that so-called 'terminator seeds' have had devastating social effects in some developing countries. These GM seeds make poor farmers dependent on multinationals, from which they have to buy new seeds every season. Traditionally, farmers use their knowledge and the seeds from their harvested crops to grow new plants the next season. But with the introduction of GM seeds both this knowledge and self-sustenance gets lost, as it was recently outlined in an interesting anthropological study of farmers in Warangal, India (earlier post).

So even though the new public database on "Nontarget Effects of Bt Crops" will be very useful in studying the environmental effects of GM crops across the world, a similar database of socio-economic effects on local communities would be welcome too.

The debate on GM crops is becoming increasingly important in the context of bioenergy and biofuels. In some countries, GM crops are already being used on a large scale for the production of ethanol (corn, maize) and biodiesel (canola, rapeseed), and serious research efforts are underway to develop next-generation genetically engineered energy crops that can be engineered in such a way that their properties allow for more efficient bioconversion. Major genome sequencing initiatives for biomass crops have been launched in the EU and the US, with the poplar - a potential energy crop - being the first tree to have had its entire genome revealed. Likewise, the cassava genome is being sequenced with the aim of improving starch production.

More information:

Michelle Marvier, Chanel McCreedy, James Regetz, Peter Kareiva, "A Meta-Analysis of Effects of Bt Cotton and Maize on Nontarget Invertebrates", Science, 8 June 2007:
Vol. 316. no. 5830, pp. 1475 - 1477, DOI: 10.1126/science.1139208

National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis: New Study Finds Genetically Engineered Crops Could Play a Role in Sustainable Agriculture [*.pdf] - June 7, 2007.

Biopact: Plant scientists develop new tool to protect crops from modified genes - February 26, 2007

Biopact: Anthropological study explores the effects of genetically modified crops on developing countries - January 27, 2007

Biopact: The first tree genome is published: Poplar holds promise as renewable bioenergy resource - September 14, 2006

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China considers discontinuing coal-to-liquids projects

A recent study from the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center (CEIC) in the U.S. concludes that while enacting policies to subsidize the production of coal-to-liquids (CTL) transportation fuel would enhance national security by lowering oil imports, encouraging plug-in hybrids powered by coal-generated electricity is a less costly policy that also reduces oil imports and does more to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

China, which is rich in coal but poor in petroleum and gas, has been on the forefront of experimenting with CTL fuels, but may put an early end to these projects, an official with the country's top economic planning agency has said (precisely because of some the reasons summed up in the CEIC's and similar studies).

The consideration came at a seminar hosted by Chinese Academy of Engineering, which looked at alternative fuels, in particular biofuels, and their role in the country's long-term energy security. Denmark-based Novozymes, the world's leader in enzymes and microorganisms used for the production of biofuels, was present.

After an evaluation of the nation's limited energy resources and its environmental status, a deputy director of the industry department of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) told the seminar held in Beijing that "liquefied coal projects consume a lot of energy, though the successful industrialization of liquefied coal could help reduce the country's dependence on petroleum."

The liquefaction of coal is not only energy intensive but also results in a large amount of GHGs. The CEIC full life-cycle analysis of gasoline obtained from coal shows that the fuel results in complete 'well-to-wheel' emissions of 360 pounds CO2 equivalent per MMBtu of gasoline in the worst-case scenario and 220 pounds CO2 equivalent per MMBtu of gasoline in the best-case scenario (converted into annual CTL gasoline emissions: 1.18 lbs/mile (536.7 g/mi) in the worst case; 0.72 lbs/mile (325 g/mi) in the best case). This compares negativey with the well-to-wheel emissions of 264.6 g/mile for the conventional coal-generated electricity used in plug-in hybrids; 105.8 g/mile for the scenario with plug-in hybrids using electricity from advanced Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS). The baseline for conventional gasoline was 344 g/mile (graph, click to enlarge).

In short, converting coal into liquid fuels is not a particularly sensitive thing for a country that is set to become the world's largest emittor of GHG's. The Chinese government said earlier it would invest more in developing alternative energy resources including biomass fuel and liquefied coal to substitute petroleum during the 11th Five-Year Program (2006-2010) period, amid concerns over the country's growing dependence on petroleum. But criticism in China over CTL-plans has been growing steadily (here):
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China, the world's second-largest energy consumer, imported 162.87 million tons of oil in 2006, driving the country's reliance on imported oil up 4.1 percentage points from a year earlier to reach 47 percent, official statistics show.

The country is also confronted with huge capital demand and higher consumption of water and coal in producing the liquefied coal, the official said. A project in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region with a designed capacity of 1.08 million tons would need more than 50 billion yuan (US$6.58 billion) of investment, according to the NDRC's deputy director for industry.

He said the country had begun the coal-liquefying projects without trial industrialization operation, and the technologies involved were not sophisticated yet. And both coal and petroleum are non-renewable energy resources, he added. However, the country has never slackened its efforts to find substitutes for petroleum.

China said last week it had successfully excavated methane hydrates (also known as natural gas ice) from below the floor of the South China Sea after nine years of research in this field. Recovering these gas hydrates remains risky and requires much more research before being commercialised on any scale.

Meanwhile, China wants to meet its growing energy needs while reducing fossil fuel consumption as much as possible. The Chinese government therefor recently announced, in its first climate plan, it upheld the development of renewable resources as an important national strategy, and would continue to boost the development of biomass fuels and biogas, hydro-power, solar and wind power.

An ambitious biofuel project announced earlier this year consists of the establishment of a biomass forest the size of England (13 million hectares) in the province of Yunnan from which the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) will extract an estimated three-quarters of a million barrels per day of liquid biofuels.

Multinationals like South-Africa's Sasol, a pioneer in coal-to-liquids technolgy, has partnered with Chinese companies on a CTL project in the country, as has Royal Dutch Shell.

More information:

Xinhua: China may halt production of liquefied coal - June 10, 2007.

Paulina Jaramillo and Constantine Samaras, "For energy security and greenhouse gas reductions, plugin hybrids a more sensible pathway than coal-to-liquids gasoline", Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center, April 2007.

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