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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, August 25, 2007

Australia's EPA approves largest geosequestration trial, report warns for leakage risks

The Environmental Protection Agency of Victoria has issued [*.pdf] a Research Development and Demonstration Approval for injection of carbon dioxide in Australia’s first and most extensive geosequestration demonstration. The trial is to be conducted by the Co-operative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies (CO2CRC), an international research and industry consortium.

In its Otway Project in south-western Victoria, CO2CRC will inject up to 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into a deep geological formation, and monitor and verify that the carbon dioxide is securely stored (diagram, click to enlarge).

CO2CRC Chief Executive Dr Peter Cook welcomed the approval, saying it represented an important step forward in demonstrating geological sequestration as a technology that could be used safely to make deep cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Risks
However, an Australian parliamentary inquiry into geosequestration [*.pdf] released this month warned that the most substantial risk associated with geosequestration was the leakage of carbon dioxide from storage sites:
"Abrupt or catastrophic leaks of carbon dioxide could have serious consequences to the environment, potentially causing the death of humans and animals"
Moreover, it suggests that CO2 storage sites may become potential terrorist targets or that failure of the seal could result in catastrophic release.
"concentration of CO2 greater than 7-10 per cent by volume in the air puts the lives and health of people in the vicinity in immediate danger."
Finally, pressure built up by injected CO2 could trigger small seismic events. Other risks identified have to do with 'gradual' leakage, such as contamination of freshwater resources and the gradual degradation of the storage site by the dissolution of minerals by CO2. (On the urgent need for a policy and regulatory framework for CCS, see here).

Carbon-negative bioenergy safest
Some of these risks can be sidestepped when storing carbon dioxide from bioenergy, simply because the spatial logic of selecting sites is entirely different in so-called 'Bio-energy with carbon storage' (BECS) projects. BECS results in the production of radically carbon-negative fuels. It allows sequestration sites to be selected independently of the location of the upstream or the downstream. Bioenergy projects can be brought to the safest, remotest sites, far away from populations and therefor also tap sites that would not be commercially feasible for fossil fuel based projects. This much more flexible site selection logic allows for a great reduction of the risks of seismic events or the destruction of life in case of catastrophic leakage.

Most importantly, by utilizing BECS, leakage of CO2 would add no net CO2 to the atmosphere, because the carbon dioxide is derived from carbon-neutral biomass. For these reasons, the Biopact thinks CCS applied to bioenergy is the safest option to implement the technology (more here and here). Researchers have found that, being the only carbon-negative energy concept, BECS-systems implemented on a large scale can take us back to pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 levels by mid-century.

In any case, even though CCS developments will be driven by the fossil fuels industry, they are important for the bioenergy community which expects them to be applied to biofuels sooner or later.

The project embarked on by CO2CRC to monitor the environment around the injection and storage site and verify the secure storage of the carbon dioxide in a depleted gas reservoir is the most extensive undertaken anywhere in the world, and includes monitoring of the atmosphere, groundwater and subsurface:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

CO2CRC anticipates beginning the injection of carbon dioxide at the Otway Project late this year.

EPA Victoria Executive Director Bruce Dawson said the approval required CO2CRC to meet a range of environmental requirements and report on the testing to see whether carbon dioxide would leak into the soil or air.

"EPA believes that this trial is an important part of testing and evaluating the suitability of carbon storage," Mr Dawson said.

CO2CRC collaborates with leading international and national geosequestration experts to conduct worldclass research into CO2 geosequestration. Organisations supporting the CO2CRC include CSIRO, Geoscience Australia and the Universities of Adelaide, Curtin, Melbourne, Monash and NSW; the Alberta Research Council in Canada and the US Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

CO2CRC industry and state core partners are ACARP, Anglo American, BHP Billiton, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, NSW Department of Primary Industries, NZ Resource Consortium, Rio Tinto, Schlumberger, Shell, Foundation for Research Science and Technology (NZ), Solid Energy, Stanwell, the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, Woodside and Xstrata. CO2CRC is supported through the Australian Government’s CRC Programme.

Image: pilot geosequestration project in south-western Victoria. Credit: CO2CRC.

References:
CO2CRC: EPA approval for CO2CRC Otway Project - August 22, 2007.

Australia, House Standing Committee on Science and Innovation, Inquiry into Geosequestration Technology: Between a Rock and a Hard Place the science of geosequestration - August 13, 2007.

Biopact: Pre-combustion CO2 capture from biogas - the way forward? - March 31, 2007

Biopact: Policy and regulatory framework crucial for CCS success - July 29, 2007

Euractiv: 'Carbon-capture trials safest way forward', Laurens Rademakers, Biopact - April 3, 2007.


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Friday, August 24, 2007

Spain and Senegal to cooperate on biofuels as way to curb illegal migration

The regional council of Tenerife and the government of Senegal will sign [*French] a collaboration protocol in December to advance the production of biofuels in the African country. The initiative is part of an attempt to alleviate poverty in the rural areas of Senegal, and thus to help reduce migration flows. Tenerife is a major arrival point for clandestine migrants from the country.

In light of the technology and knowledge transfer accord, the island of Tenerife is committed to establishing a laboratory in Senegal that will develop oil-bearing plants adapted to the region and that can be used for the production of biodiesel. A team of Senegalese scientists and technicians will be invited to study in Tenerife to acquire the skills needed to manage research projects on in vitro plant breeding and to run the lab.

Revitalizing the land
The project is part of the Spanish authorities' program to help the Senegalese government to establish agricultural and livestock projects that can prevent rural populations from migrating. Being labor-intensive, bioenergy projects generate employment and wealth amongst rural communities. This ensures the push-factors leading to migration are tackled at the very source. Biofuels can contribute to relieving two waves typical of this exodus: poverty-driven internal migration from rural areas to the cities, and the poverty encountered there by unskilled workers who then decide to migrate further, to the EU.

Biofuels offer farmers a historic opportunity to strengthen their livelihoods and to revitalize rural economies, whereas jobs in non-farming sectors - in biomass logistics, science, technology and trade - become available as well. Between 70 and 80% of the Senegalese labor population is currently employed in agriculture (map, here). Its reliance on commodities like cotton have pushed millions into poverty, with subsidies and trade barriers in the U.S. and the EU taking much of the blame. Biofuels allow farmers to diversify their crops and to enter a new, global market. Demand for the green fuels is expected to keep growing over the coming decades, and a country like Senegal can tap its comparative advantages: abundant land, labor and suitable agroclimatic conditions for a range of efficient energy crops.

Curbing migration
Tenerife and other Canary islands are part of a major migration route from Africa to Europe. Last year, the Canaries received around 30,000 clandestine migrants from Senegal - itself a major transit hub attracting people from across West-Africa. Each year, thousands of them die making the treacherous trip in the Atlantic.

Both the EU and the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, have placed the biofuels opportunity within the context of reducing these pressures:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
The country's president is one of the staunchest advocates of utilising biofuels as a way to secure jobs on the continent and thus to reduce emigration flows. Earlier Wade announced the formation of a 'Green OPEC' of sorts, the PANPP (Pays Africains Non Producteurs de Pétrole) (earlier post), while hinting at the potential of a biofuels industry to bring wealth to the rural parts of the country.

Stressting the urgency of a switch to biofuels Wade's administration meanwhile put its money where its mouth is, by launching a first biofuel production plan based on the cultivation of jatropha, of which 250 million seedlings were distributed amongst rural families.

The effort is part of a series of programs aimed at revitalising the farming sector: a large project called 'REVA' (Retour vers l'agriculture), with a segment called 'Retour des Immigrés Vers L'Agriculture' (Return of the Migrants to Agriculture) (previous post). Biofuels play an important role in REVA, and EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Michel has hinted that the EU might put funds into the scheme.

Recently, the new chief of Senegal's Agronomic Research Institute (ISRA) outlined its biofuel strategy, explaining the great chances biofuels offer Senegal. He pointed to developing crops like tabanani (jatropha) and ricin (castor beans), initiatives to restore the environment and bring degraded lands back into culture by drought-tolerant crops like ricin, 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 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 (previous post).

Most recently, Senegal and Brazil signed a biofuel cooperation agreement aimed specifically at strengthening Senegalese human resources in the bioenergy sector and at transferring technologies. Brazil's president Lula stressed his country's willingness to share its world leading biodiesel and ethanol expertise with the countries of the 'Green OPEC': "Under the leadership of Senegal, we want to extend this initiative to other non-oil producing African countries." Lula stressed the initiative is part of a larger South-South strategy on biofuels that will eventually involve NEPAD.

References:
Rewmi - l'Actualité sur le Sénégal: L'Espagne aidera le Sénégal à produire du biocarburant - August 24, 2007.

BBC: Key facts: Africa to Europe migration - July 2, 2007.

Biopact: Senegal and Brazil sign biofuel agreement to make Africa a major supplier - May 17, 2007

Biopact: Senegal's Agronomic Research Institute outlines biofuel strategy - June 13, 2007

Biopact: Senegal in the spotlight: cooperation with Brazil, EU on bioenergy and migration - October 27, 2006





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Biofuel Cities analyses pure vegetable oil as an engine fuel


As part of its aim to support biofuel stakeholders through the provision of information, the Biofuel Cities European Partnership presents a frank analysis of the perhaps most controversial biofuel, Pure Vegetable Oil (PVO), in the first issue of its Biofuel Cities Quarterly newsletter. The Biofuels Cities European Partnership is a forum to share information on the development and use of biofuels for sustainable mobility, supported by the European Commission under the EU's Sixth Framework Programme.

In the world of biofuels, PVO or straight vegetable oil (SV0), has often been portrayed as a practical, yet problematic option to meeting the needs for transport biofuels and this is reflected in its widely varying uptake across Europe. For example, in France and Italy use of PVO is more or less prohibited, while in Germany and Austria, it is the fuel of choice for a fleet of approximately 10,000 vehicles, including a large fleet of trucks and tractors.

The primary arguments for the promotion of PVO as a fuel include the fact that it can be produced decentrally, even by small farms or other agricultural units and it is immediately usable. Energy losses in the well-to-wheel chain are, therefore, low. Technology, also, has come to a level where vehicle modifications, necessary for emission reduction and engine protection, can be easily undertaken.

However, as a result of biofuels' recently high profile, much discussion has been raised regarding emissions and engine compatibility. For example, under certain test conditions, PVO generates unacceptably high levels of carcinogenic emissions (earlier post). Still, when asked about this in the Biofuel Cities Quarterly interview, Dr. G. Gruber of the United Workshops for Plant Oil Technology stated that, 'emissions from vegetable oil fuelled adapted engines are most probably less carcinogenic than emissions from diesel engines fuelled with conventional diesel or with biodiesel'.

Such controversies discussed across the entire biofuels community, show the relevance of PVO as a fuel, but also illustrate the various aspects under which biofuels must be analysed and compared, not only against conventional transport fuels, but also other biofuels.

Let us look at these issues more in depth. How is the oil produced, what does it take to run a car or a truck on it, and what does PVO's emissions profile look like? How much PVO can the EU produce sustainably? And are there any import opportunities?

Decentralised production
Pure vegetable oil can be produced decentrally and is immediately usable. There is no lengthy manufacturing chain. This has two consequences: Firstly, even small agricultural units are able to produce fuel. This results in a stabilisation of agricultural structures, which is desirable for socio-economic and spatial-structural reasons. Secondly, the energy losses and required energy input from harvest on the field to filling of the tanks (well-to-tank losses) are the lowest of all biofuels:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
Pure vegetable oil has a by-product for which a large market exists; oil cake – a protein-rich product that can be used as a domestic animal feed, replacing imports of soy into the EU.

Vehicle modifications
The most fundamental argument against pure vegetable oil is that its low viscosity and low cetane number make it principally unsuitable for use in existing and future internal combustion engines. This is, however, disproved by some 10,000 vehicles running smoothly on pure vegetable oil once some vehicle modifications were undertaken.

The concepts for vehicle modification can roughly be broken down into two-tank and single-tank concepts.

Two-tank concept
Two-tank concepts overcome the principle difficulties of pure vegetable oil combustion by starting the engine with conventional diesel taken from one tank and then switching over step-by-step to higher content of vegetable oil taken from the other tank.

These concepts differ mainly in the sophistication of the control unit, which measures the temperature at different points of the engine and the fuel circuit and regulates the switch over between both fuels. Engine components in two-tank systems are generally little modified in comparison with standard diesel engines.

Single-tank concept
Single-tank systems allow engine starts with pure vegetable oil and require a modification of the engine itself. The components that are modified are essentially the fuel circuit and the injection system.

Modifying the engine, however, terminates the warranty of the original engine manufacturer, however some specialist vegetable oil engine workshops compensate this loss with an own-warranty on the modified motor.

PVO Emissions
Exhaust emissions are a major point of the debate. Engines that have not been converted to pure vegetable oil operation generally produce high emissions, above legal thresholds, when fuelled with vegetable oil. The exact level depends on the specific engine, as well as on the quality of the vegetable oil that is used. This has recently been highlighted on German TV, where emission measurements on nonadapted engines fuelled with vegetable oil, not corresponding to the existing German pre-norm DIN V 51605, were presented. The measured emissions were not only high, but have shown a higher mutagenicity of the particulates than for diesel in the AMES test, which is a quick method of estimating the carcinogenic potential of a substance.

Advocates of pure vegetable oil in Germany commented on the ‘perfect timing’ of this broadcast, which coincided with an important legislative debate on biofuels in Germany and stressed that the results presented tell nothing about converted engines running on pure vegetable oil. What can be learnt from this is that statements about pure vegetable oil – and other biofuels – are not untainted by the position of various interest groups and need to be examined more closely.

A modification of the engine, either as two-tank or singletank system changes the situation and suitably adapted engines can comply with the EURO-3- norm even when running with pure vegetable oil.

Lack of framework
The lack of a legal norm for vegetable oil fuel leadsto a paradoxical situation: in the course of the vehicle registration, the authorised workshops must measure the engine emissions with standardised diesel as test fuel, i.e. exactly with the fuel that will not be used in daily operation by the vehicle owner. Hence, this obligatory exhaust emission measurement tells nothing about the emissions under real operating conditions.

Even worse, the engine cannot be adapted for lowest possible emissions under vegetable oil operation, as this requires setting engine parameters, such that the emission tests with diesel fuel might fail. As a consequence, not all specialist workshops that offer diesel engine modification care about the emissions under real operating conditions with pure vegetable oil and those that do are impeded by the present legislation to reduce emissions to the lowest technically possible level.

Sustainable production of pure vegetable oil in Europe

A further point to be examined is the potential that exists for producing pure vegetable oil and how much this potential depends on (un)sustainable cultivation practices. Rapeseed oil, which is the presently most used vegetable oil in Europe, is difficult to cultivate organically, i.e. it requires energy input in the form of plant protection chemicals and mineral fertilisers.

In addition, the oil yield per hectare is low, at approximately 1,000 litres, whereas the cultivation of maize for the production of biogas or of energy plants for the production of sun fuels can lead to yields up to 4,000 liters per hectare.

However, three considerations put this comparison into perspective:
  1. First, rape cultivation leads to a yield of about 2-3,000 kg of protein-rich oil cake in addition to the oil. Oil-cake can replace imports of soy for cattle feeding – an important aspect if one considers that the EU is a net importer of proteinrich animal food. The remaining straw can serve as additional fuel.
  2. Secondly, plant breeding has the potential to develop rape species that are more suitable for organic farming, the only fully sustainable form of agricultural production.
  3. Thirdly, other oil plants can be considered for producing engine fuels. Sunflower oil is also appropriate and is more suited to organic cultivation. An important opportunity for organically produced oil seeds in Europe, however, lies in companion cultures or mixed cropping. The method consists in cultivating oil plants like wild flax (Camelina sativa) simultaneously with cereals or legumes. This leads to synergy effects between the plants and allows a strong reduction in the use of plant protection agents, which is a large step towards organic farming by a simple change of the cultivation method. The yield of the main fruit, cereal or legume is not reduced, but is stabilised on average over the years. In addition to the main crop, 100 litre oil and 200 to 300 kg oil cake are gained per hectare.
As huge areas in Europe are used for cereal production, the potential for producing pure vegetable oil is about 60 petajoule. This is only 60 % of the German biodiesel use in 2006, but can be produced without running into competition with food production and – due to synergy effects – at almost zero cost.

Oil import options
There are a lot of other oils that could be taken into account for the development of vegetable oil engines. Coconut and palm oils, for example, are suitable for the use in CHPs. In hot countries, the oil is also suitable for mobile use. However, the risk of possible deforestation of the tropical rain forest for the cultivation of palm oil plantations requires that caution be exercised, if sustainability criteria are to be met.

The most interesting (sub)tropical oil plant is jatropha, which has numerous advantages. Firstly, jatropha is not in competition with food production. Jatropha grows in arid and semi-arid regions and is used in hedges to protect fields from goats. The plant stabilises the groundwater level and can even deal with a certain salt content. Jatropha has not been cultivated very much until now, however a number of pilot projects have been implemented to produce jatropha oil as an engine fuel. It seems to be well suited for converted engines. In this respect, jatropha even has advantages over sunflower oil. The engines that have been converted for rapeseed oil need only a few changes to run on jatropha oil.

Challenges ahead
In summary, one can say that pure vegetable oil can be considered as an engine fuel. It is most suitable for applications that require few starts of the engine, i.e. engines used in hot countries, hybrid engines and engines used for long distances or longer constant loads, such as tractors and other agricultural machinery.

The environmental-friendly nature of pure vegetable oil make it suitable for applications in environmentally sensitive areas. From a logistics point of view its low flammability is a strong advantage, as the risk of explosion is almost zero.

The potential for pure vegetable oil does not allow to replace a major part of the presently used mineral fuels, but is large enough to make an important contribution to the biofuels market. In particular, pure vegetable oil has by-products that can be used for animal feed (oil cake) or may not compete with food production at all (oils from mixed cropping). Specific advantages of pure vegetable oil include the fact that it can be produced in small units, allowing income generation for farmers, who profit from the whole value-creation chain and that very little energy losses occur in the process chain from seeds to oil.

The challenges to be met are oil quality, definition of standards for emission measurements, breeding of suitable oil plants and engine conversion. A European standard for pure vegetable oil needs to be defined and, when the vehicle is intended to be run on vegetable oil, emission measurements need to be taken with pure vegetable oil in the tank.

Research and development is needed on plant breeding for vegetable oil, and engine conversion. A European standard for pure vegetable oil needs to be defined and, when the vehicle is intended to be run on vegetable oil, emission measurements need to be taken with pure vegetable oil in the tank.

Research and development is needed on plant breeding for vegetable oil use as fuel. In particular, oils with a low iodine number, i.e. high oleic acid content and low linoleic and linolenic acid content are required and corresponding species need to be bred. In addition, the research and development of engine concepts that until now been carried out by a few small technology development companies needs to be intensified.

The perspective of an engine supplier
An interview with Dr. G. Gruber, who runs a leading company adapting diesel engines to run on PVO, tells us more about the efficiency and the cost of such modifications. The company is called 'United Workshops for Plant Oil Technology', Vereinigten Werkstätten für Pflanzenöltechnologie (VWP), and has modified more than 4000 engines. Within the EU-Fifth Framework Programme funded project “100% RENET”, VWP managed to realise the breakthrough of the adherence to the EURO-3-Norm for passenger cars, as well as the first use of plant oil in a small combined heat and power unit (CHP) with soot filter.

Is pure vegetable oil actually a motor fuel or not? The automobile industry says it is not, but your company has lived on the business of pure vegetable oil engines for 14 years now and you have already converted more than 4,000 vehicles. How do these positions reconcile with each other?

The answer is very simple: It is problematic to use vegetable oil as a fuel for mobile applications. This is related to the enormous variability of its viscosity within the operating temperature range and its low flammability and cetane number.

After fuelling a modern standard diesel engine with pure vegetable oil, for certain the engine will be ruined – exceptions might prove the rule. Pure vegetable oil is not a fuel for the currently serially produced diesel engines. Unfortunately, already here the perception of many people and institutions comes to an end. It is, thus, our challenge to demonstrate that with an appropriate adaptation of the engine, for which we have developed and applied concepts successfully for 14 years, an engine can run perfectly between pure vegetable oil and any blend with conventional diesel.

Having this is mind, why is the rumour that plant oil is categorically not suitable as an engine fuel so persistent?

This is due to the fact that a lot of companies offer concepts for the conversion of engines that are poorly conceived. As a consequence, the engines may be damaged and at the very least emissions may reach unjustifiably high levels.

Dr. G. Gruber also answers some questions on the emissions of PVO. One of the main points of those opposed to the utilisation of plant oil as an engine fuel is the accusations that this would result in high emissions. Asked by Dr. Michael Stöhr, of INEM/B.A.U.M., what the norms for exhaust gases are that may be reached by engines converted by Gruber's company, he answered as follows:

For new passenger cars this is the EURO-4. The main challenge is cold starting, which is compulsory for all exhaust-gas tests for passenger cars. These make it very difficult to reach EURO-4- and -5 norms with vegetable oil. There is still a lot of research to do. As tractors normally operate at constant load, there is no legally regulated testing with cold starts for tractors. Instead of this, a test with eight different load and idle steps is carried out. Our company reached the TIER 3 norm for tractors at the beginning of this year. This norm is valid for diesel, as well as for vegetable oil until 2011. Besides, the possibility of achieving the TIER 4 norm also exists.

Measurements, broadcast recently on German TV, have shown that emissions from vegetable oil-fuelled vehicles are much more carcinogenic than emissions from diesel.

But Gruber says hese measurements have been made on a non-adapted motor with vegetable oil of unknown quality. They teach us nothing about emissions from engines adapted to vegetable oil. Quite the opposite. We know about measurements that show that the opposite is true: emissions from vegetable oil-fuelled adapted engines
are most probably less carcinogenic than emissions from diesel engines fuelled with conventional diesel or with biodiesel.


Biofuel Cities

Biofuel Cities is a European project to build and maintain a European Partnership, a platform in which participants can share all that they need to make progress in the implementation of biofuels. For instance, a few dozen European local car or bus fleets have been, or are, shifting from regular fuels to biogas, pure biodiesel or almost pure ethanol.

Through the Biofuel Cities European Partnership, all participants can share information and experience to profit from this.

Within Biofuel Cities you can find information and partners, start a discussion, address barriers and create new initiatives. Biofuel Cities was created to accelerate developments leading up to an increased use of biofuels in Europe.

The Biofuel Cities European Partnership is an EU-funded project. The project involves
seven project partners: SenterNovem (Netherlands, project coordinator) and Exergia (Greece), ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, INEM, the World Federation of National Business Associations for Environmental Management, the Institute for Fuels and Renewable Energy (Poland), NEN, the Dutch Standardisation Institute (Netherlands) as well as VITO, the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (Belgium). The organisations ICLEI and INEM operate world-wide.


Thanks to Ciara Leonard.

References:
Bockey, D. (2006): Current situation and prospects for biodiesel and vegetable oils as fuels: From niche products to market players [*.pdf], Berlin.

Haupt, J. & D. Bockey (2006): Running vehicles successfully on bio-diesel. Product quality requirements for FAME [*.pdf], Berlin.

Kampman, B., den Boer, E. & H. Croezen (2005): Biofuels under development [*.pdf]. Delft. (An analysis of currently available and future biofuels and a comparison with biomass application in other sectors).

Website of EPPOA - European Pure Plant Oil Association.
Information on pure plant oil on the SenterNovem website.

Website of VWP – Vereinigte Werkstätten für Pflanzenöltechnologie.

Eder B. & F. Eder (Staufen 2004): Pflanzenöl als Kraftstoff. Autos und Verbrennungsmotoren mit Bioenergie antreiben.

Website on the EU Strategy for Biofuels.

Country reports on implementation of the EU's Biofuels Directive.

The European biofuels technology platform.

The EUBIONET II – European bioenergy network analyses current and future biomass fuel market trends and biomass fuel prices.

PREMIA investigates the effectiveness of support programmes to facilitate and secure
the market introduction of alternative motor fuels in the European Union.



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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Consortium releases major database of protein sequences from oceanic microbes

Many of the products of the future bioeconomy will be made by relying on dedicated enzymes and biochemical processes discovered or designed by looking at the way proteins work. Molecular and synthetic biologists continuously search for novel enzymes which can transform biomass into a wide range of materials in ever more efficient and targeted ways. Such biological catalysts can be found in all living organisms, from ordinary bugs found on compost heaps to extremophiles found in the harshest environments (earlier post). However, there exists a vast world that remains largely unexplored: that of marine micro-organisms.

A multinational biological information consortium, the Universal Protein Resource (UniProt), has now added a new database repository of DNA sequences obtained from oceanic microbes to its family of protein sequence databases. The data are publicly available. Information accumulated in this database is central to fundamental biological research, because of the functions that these molecules carry out in cells.

Proteomics research, the large-scale study of proteins and their interactions, has accelerated in recent years because of technological advances in protein science and the large amounts of genomic data pouring out of the Human Genome Project (HGP). The UniProt consortium aims to support biological research by maintaining a high quality database that serves as a stable, comprehensive, fully classified, richly and accurately annotated protein sequence knowledge base, with extensive cross-references and querying interfaces freely accessible to the scientific community.

In a major leap forward for researchers everywhere, UniProt has added the new database repository for metagenomic and environmental data to its existing family of protein sequence databases, the largest in the world. Metagenomics is the large-scale genomic analysis of microbes recovered from environmental samples, as opposed to laboratory-grown organisms which represent only a small proportion of the microbial world.

Secrets of the deep
The UniProt Metagenomic and Environmental Sequences (UniMES) database contains the data from the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition(GOS), which was originally submitted to the International Nucleotide Sequence Databases (INSDC). The GOS expedition was led by Dr. J Craig Venter, driving force behind the Human Genome Project and a leading scientist in the field of synthetic biology, which opens new doors to the bioeconomy (earlier post, here and here).

The initial GOS dataset is composed of 28 million DNA sequences from oceanic microbes and it predicts nearly 6 million proteins:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

By combining the predicted protein sequences with automatic classification by InterPro, the EBI’s integrated resource for protein families, domains and functional sites, UniMES uniquely provides free access to the array of genomic information gathered from sampling expeditions, enhanced by links to further analytical resources. Genomics holds the key to understanding a significant part of the world around us, and the metagenomic and environmental data represent a step forward in further charting genomic diversity.

With the increasing volume and variety of protein sequences and functional information that has become available, UniProt effectively serves as the central database of protein sequence and function. It has become a cornerstone for a wide range of scientists active in modern biological research, especially in the field of proteomics. Researchers working at the PIR site have also made great strides in automating the use of computers to analyse proteins.

As a publicly funded project, UniProt's data is freely accessible and all data is released in a timely manner. The website created for UniProt effectively fulfils this role.

The UniProt Consortium comprises the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB), and the Protein Information Resource (PIR) hosted by the National Biomedical Research Foundation (NBRF) at the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., USA.

Image: Sample of oceanic bacteria as seen using epifluorescence microscopy. Credit: Microbiologist Dr. Ed DeLong.

References:
European Research Headlines: Maritime secrets added to biological repository - August 22, 2007.

J. Craig Venter Institute: Global Ocean Sampling Expedition.

Biopact: Investigating life in extreme environments may yield applications in the bioeconomy - July 05, 2007

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Chemrec and NewPage team up to produce biofuels from black liquor gasification

The effort to utilize abundant industrial biomass waste streams for the production of biofuels continues. Swedish-based Chemrec AB and Ohio-based NewPage Corporation have formed a partnership to explore possible development of a plant that would produce renewable fuels from black liquor at the NewPage paper mill in Escanaba, Michigan. The agreement was announced by Michigan's governor Jennifer M. Granholm during a tour in Europe.

The proposed plant would employ Chemrec's black liquor gasification (BLG) technology, which converts waste from the paper pulping process into synthesis gas. The synthesis gas can be used to generate power and electricity, or processed into a variety of biofuels such as dimethyl ether (DME) and methanol (MeOH), or alternatively Fischer-Tropsch diesel (FTD), Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG), or hydrogen (H2) (schematic, click to enlarge).

According to Chemrec, the potential of this efficient fuel production process and the available feedstock is large. For Sweden alone, it could replace approximately 30 - 40 % of the country's consumption of petrol and diesel or 5-7 % of today’s electricity demand. The renewable fuels, produced in large-scale plants, would have prices comparable to fossil petrol and diesel. Well-to-wheel analyses show that the BLG production process is amongst the most energy efficient production routes to renewable fuels, and consequently results in high CO2 reduction levels (graph, click to enlarge):

For the Escanaba mill it is estimated that the process could yield up to 13 million gallons of liquid biofuel per year from the black liquor waste stream. The plant would be closely integrated with the paper mill to optimize energy efficiency and enhance the pulp production capacity of the mill. Chemrec's gasification plants can be fully integrated in existing pulp mill processes (schematic, click to enlarge):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Several European and U.S. studies have shown the BLG technology to provide a highly efficient and environmentally sound route for converting biomass to liquid biofuels. The technology does not require high-grade wood or woodchips.
We continuously search for ways to improve operations while at the same time improving our efficient use of renewable resources such as wood and wood waste. Liquid biofuel production using the BLG technology holds promise to improve efficiencies at our mills as well as becoming a source of valuable fuels and chemicals extracted from renewable sources. - Mark A. Suwyn, NewPage Corporation Chairman and CEO
The addition of Chemrec's BLG technology to NewPage's Escanaba mill is expected to create new on and off-site job opportunities. New jobs would be created at the NewPage facility for both biofuel production and for the enhanced pulping capacity. Additional jobs would include logging operations, transportation and maintenance jobs and construction jobs during the development of the plant.

Michigan's governor Jennifer M. Granholm made the announcement in Sweden following a reception with company and government leaders to celebrate the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the two companies. The governor and Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) President and CEO James C. Epolito are on the third day of an investment mission to Sweden and Germany.

References:
Office of the Governor: Granholm: Alternative Energy Partnership to Fuel Further Growth in Michigan's Bio-Economy - August 22, 2007.

Chemrec: High-Temperature Black Liquor Gasification - Status and Outlook [*.pdf], Int. Conference Biomass Gasification for an efficient provision of electricity and fuels – state of knowledge 2007 Leipzig, Germany, February 27-28, 2007


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The bioeconomy at work: Sony develops most efficient biofuel cell ever, powered by sugar

Good news for the emerging carbohydrate economy: electronics major Sony today announced the development of the world's most efficient 'bio-battery' that generates electricity from carbohydrates (sugars) utilizing enzymes as its catalyst, through the application of power generation principles found in living organisms. The bio-battery (also called bio-fuel cell) makes it possible to power electronic devices simply by filling them up with a solution of sugar - one of the planet's most abundant biological materials. To add fun, the battery's plastic casing is of course made of bioplastics.

The research results on the a high-power glucose/oxygen biofuel cell presented by Sony have been accepted as an academic paper at the 234th American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition in Boston, where they were presented on August 22, 2007.

Biofuel cells are electricity generation devices that utilize energy sources such as carbohydrates, protein, amino acids or fat by digesting enzymes. Since 2001, Sony's research on this type of bio-batteries has been supported by Professor Kenji Kano's laboratory at the Division of Applied Life Sciences, Graduated School of Agriculture, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan, which specializes in bioelectrochemistry. The data on the bio-battery presented today are based on Sony's original technological developments, inspired by the lab's advanced research activities.

Test cells of the bio-battery have achieved power output of 50 mW, currently the world's highest level for passive-type bio-batteries. The output of these test cells is sufficient to power music play back on a memory-type Walkman (see video).

Passive-type batteries are systems in which reactive substances such as glucose and oxygen are absorbed into electrodes through a process of natural diffusion. In contrast, systems in which reactive substances are supplied by force (stirring, convection) are referred to as 'active-type'. In general, passive-type systems have a more simple structure suitable for miniaturization, whereas active type systems have a more complicated structure and are suited to higher power devices.

In order to realize this record, Sony developed a system of breaking down sugar to generate electricity that involves efficiently immobilizing enzymes and the mediator (electronic conduction materials) while retaining the activity of the enzymes at the anode. Sony also developed a new cathode structure which efficiently supplies oxygen to the electrode while ensuring that the appropriate water content is maintained. Optimizing the electrolyte for these two technologies has enabled these power output levels to be reached.

Sugar is a naturally occurring, abundant energy source produced by plants through photosynthesis. It is therefore regenerative, and can be found in most areas of the earth, underlining the potential for sugar-based bio-batteries as an ecologically-friendly energy device of the future:
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Sony will continue its development of immobilization systems, electrode composition and other technologies in order to further enhance power output and durability, with the aim of realizing practical applications for these bio-batteries in the future.

Process
The newly developed bio-battery incorporates an anode consisting of sugar-digesting enzymes and mediator, and a cathode comprising oxygen-reducing enzymes and mediator, either side of a cellophane separator. The anode extracts electrons and hydrogen ions from the sugar(glucose) through enzymatic oxidation as follows:

Glucose -> Gluconolactone + 2 H+ + 2 e-

The hydrogen ion migrates to the cathode through the separator. Once at the cathode, the hydrogen ions and electrons absorb oxygen from the air to produce water:
(1/2) O2 + 2 H+ + 2 e- -> H2O

Through this process of electrochemical reaction, the electrons pass through the outer circuit to generate electricity (schematic, click to enlarge).

Key achievements
1) Technology to enhance immobilization of enzymes and mediator on the electrode
For effective glucose digestion to occur, the anode must contain a high concentration of enzymes and mediator, with their activity retained. This technology uses two polymers to attach these components to the anode. Each polymer has opposite charge so the electrostatic interaction between the two polymers effectively secures the enzymes and mediator. The ionic balance and immobilization process have been optimized for efficient electron extraction from the glucose.

2) Cathode structure for efficient oxygen absorption
Water content within the cathode is vital to ensuring optimum conditions for the efficient enzymatic reduction of oxygen. The bio battery employs porous carbon electrodes bearing the immobilized enzyme and mediator, which are partitioned using a cellophane separator. The optimization of this electrode structure and process ensures the appropriate water levels are maintained, enhancing the reactivity of the cathode.

3) Optimization of electrolytes to meet the bio-battery cell structure
A phosphate buffer of approximately 0.1 M is generally used within enzymology research, however an unusually high 1.0 M concentration buffer is used in this bio-battery. This is based on the discovery that such high concentration levels are effective for maintaining the activity of enzymes immobilized on the electrodes.

4) Test cell combining high-power output and compact size
The test cells of these high-power, compact bio-batteries have been fabricated using these three technologies. The bio-battery does not require mixing, or the convection of glucose solution or air; as it is a passive-type battery, it works simply by supplying sugar solution into the battery unit. The cubic (39 mm along each edge) cell produces 50 mW, representing the world's highest power output among passive-type bio batteries of comparable volume. By connecting four cubic cells, it is possible to power a memory-type Walkman (NW-E407) together with a pair of passive-type speakers (no external power source). The bio-battery casing is made of vegetable-based plastic (polylactate), and designed in the image of a biological cell.

All images courtesy of Sony.

References:

Hideki Sakai, Yuichi Tokita, and Tsuyonobu Hatazawa, "A high-power glucose/oxygen biofuel cell", Fuel Cell Technology: Biofuel Cells, Enzymatic and Microbial, Division of Fuel Chemistry, 234th ACS National Meeting, Boston, MA - August 22, 2007

Ecoustics: Sony Develops "Bio Battery" Generating Electricity From Sugar - August 23, 2007.


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First Global Biogas Congress to look at applications for biomethane in power and transportation fuels

The European biogas sector is growing rapidly as concerns grow about oil and gas prices and climate change. A recent 'Biogas Barometer' report, published by a consortium of renewable energy groups led by France's Observ'ER, cites a 13.6% increase growth in biogas use for primary energy production between 2005 and 2006 (earlier post).

Biogas is composed primarily of methane and CO2, and can be used for heat production, electricity generation and as a replacement for compressed natural gas (CNG) in vehicles. A variety of sources are used to create biogas, including municipal wastes, sewage sludge, manure or biodegradable waste. But increasingly dedicated energy crops such as biogas maize and grasses are being used. Biomethane is the most efficient of the transport biofuels (a comprehensive overview of some of the latest developments in the biogas sector can be found here and especially here).

The total energy potential for biogas in the EU has been the subject of several projections and scenarios, with the most optimistic showing that it can replace all European natural gas imports from Russia by 2020 (more here). Germany recently started looking at opening its main natural gas pipelines to feed in the renewable green gas. And an EU project is assessing the technical feasibility of doing the same on a Europe-wide scale (previous post).

Ultimately, biogas production can be integrated into carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects, yielding carbon-negative energy, the cleanest and most radical energy system that can take us back to pre-industrial CO2 levels in a matter of decades (more here).

First global conference
A new Agra Informa conference, to be held in Brussels in November, will cover all these aspects of the burgeoning biogas sector. The First Global Biogas Congress will examine prospects for new legislation to increase the adoption of biogas, in the light of existing EU targets.

The first Global Biogas Congress will focus on ways to commercialise the biofuel and on new applications for biomethane and landfill gas in power and transportation fuels. The gathering will also bring the latest on government initiatives to support biogas production, new technological developments and a key insight into the range of projects being undertaken in Europe, the USA and Asia to capture methane for use in heating, electricity generation and vehicle fuel.

A keynote speaker at the two-day event in Brussels will be Hans van Steen from the European Commission, who will look at government initiatives to increase biogas usage. This will include investment grants, tax measures and subsidies.

Delegates will hear from Sanne Mohr, Special Projects Manager for ENGVA, who are actively promoting biogas as a renewable source of vehicle fuel and who are heavily involved in the BIOGASMAX Project (more here). The Congress will share a vehicle manufacturer’s perspective on the viability of biogas as a fuel for CNG vehicles and follow the continued successes that Sweden has witnessed in their efforts to promote biogas as a vehicle fuel:
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Delegates will also hear case studies of waste management companies who are pioneering the capture of landfill gas, as well as the latest developments in biogas for electricity generation and CHP, such as the applications of new technologies.

Expert advice will also be given by leading industry representatives on how to secure finance for biogas projects and capitalise on extra revenue streams created by the Clean Development Mechanism, which applies to developing countries under the Kyoto Protocol to combat climate change.

Gary Crawford, Vice President of the Greenhouse Gas Department at Veolia Environmental Services will outline the variety of international projects they are pioneering in the capture of landfill gas and how they have leveraged the benefits of the CDM.

Jake Stewart, Vice President of Strategic Development for Organic Fuels will share his knowledge of integrating biogas and biofuels operations. Jake has a wide experience of broad-based renewables and prior to his current role he worked for Biodiesel Industries who own the Texas-based biodiesel plant fuelled by biogas. Hear the latest on this type of system and assess the huge potential for the integration of biogas and biofuels in “closed loop” production processes.

The First Global Biogas Congress will enable participants to examine strategies from leading biogas producers on how to successfully plan for and operate a biogas plant. This includes an in-depth analysis of the opportunities and challenges facing biogas producers in securing finance and what organisations can do to attract funding for biomethane and landfill gas projects.

References:
AgraInforma: First Global Biogas Conference.

NewsBlaze: Biogas Congress to Review Huge Untapped Potential - August 23, 2007.

Biopact: Experts see 2007 as the year of biogas; biomethane as a transport fuel - January 09, 2007

Biopact: Germany considers opening natural gas network to biogas - major boost to sector - August 11, 2007

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Researchers to study biofuel production from beer and whisky by-products

Cars in the future could be running on fuel made from the by-products of brewing and distilling thanks to a new research project at the University of Abertay Dundee. Researchers in Abertay’s School of Contemporary Sciences have been awarded a prestigious Carnegie Trust Research Grant to investigate turning residues from beer and whisky processes into biofuel.

The year long project will look at new methods of turning spent grain, a dry waste product, into bioethanol, a more environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. According to Professor Graeme Walker, who heads the project, the main advantages of bioethanol over traditional fuels are that it is CO2 neutral, it produces 65% less greenhouse gas emissions and because it burns at a higher temperature it is better for fire safety.
The supply of fossil fuels is finite – some estimates suggest that around half of the world’s oil reserves have been used up in the last 200 years - and the race is on to find more environmentally friendly alternatives. - Professor Graeme Walker, School of Contemporary Sciences, University of Abertay Dundee
Scientists all over the world are trying to find a simple and cost effective way to produce more biofuels from waste or low value products. Currently, a large range of agro-industrial waste products is being converted into biogas. But researchers are looking into turning these residues - from citrus peels and wheat straw to glycerine and dried distillers grains - into liquid fuels using a range of second-generation technologies:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Professor Walker said: "Our research will be looking at the far more complicated process of turning waste products from industry into bioethanol as an example of a second-generation biofuel.

These products are currently disposed of or processed for animal feed and turning them into fuel would be an attractive use of the resource.

"At the moment many technical challenges remain to converting waste biomass into fuel. We will focus on finding more efficient and cost effective processes", he added.

In 2005, a Colorado-based brewer announced it was going to make ethanol from the large waste streams that become available from beer-making (more here).

References:
University of Abertay: Booze to biofuels - fuel for the future? - August 22, 2007.

Realbeer: Fill 'er up - with Coors - Colorado brewery turns waste into ethanol to use as gas substitute - October 24, 2005.


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U.S. Biofuels Index: dramatic growth brings planned capacity to 795,700 barrels per day

Growth in planned projects and those currently under construction in the United States remains strong for both ethanol and biodiesel plants, according to a Biofuels Index kept by Soyatech, which has been updated for the second quarter of 2007. However, the data also shows signs that the corn-based ethanol build out may be leveling off. Nonetheless, total planned capacity for liquid biofuels in the U.S. now stands at an amazing 795,700 barrels of oil equivalent per day (boe/d) - more than the oil output of OPEC member Qatar.

Ethanol

Soyatech's Biofuels Index, which tracks planned and actual build-out of biofuels production capacity, reports dramatic growth in planned capacity for ethanol plants over the past year, from 6.761 billion gallons per year (BGY) (25.5bn liters) as of July 1, 2006, to 13.03 BGY (50.3bn liter) as of July 1, 2007 - an increase of 93%. During this same period, growth in ethanol capacity under construction increased 199%, from 2.417 BGY (9.3bn liter) to 7.226 BGY (27.3bn liter) (map, click to enlarge).

Total planned ethanol capacity for the U.S., taking into account the lower energy content of ethanol, now equates to around 606,700 boe/d.

During Q2 2007, total online capacity for ethanol increased by 564 million gallons per year (MGY), or 10.7%, from 5.289 BGY (20bn liters) to 5.853 BGY (22.2bn liters). Capacity in planning rose by approximately 6% during the quarter.

However, the Index also points to a slight leveling off in construction of ethanol plants during Q2 2007 - the first time since the Index began tracking these numbers. According to the Index, capacity under construction decreased slightly by 1.7%.

Biodiesel

Total online capacity for biodiesel production increased sharply - 41% from Q1 to Q2 2007, from 890 MGY (3.4bn liters) to 1.255 BGY (4.7bn liters). While it is easier to produce impressive growth when starting from a smaller base, a 41% growth rate nevertheless means that industry capacity for biodiesel nearly doubled over the last three months. That is certainly a significant development, says Jacob Golbitz, director of research for Soyatech and its parent company, HighQuest Partners.

Biodiesel capacity under construction for the same period grew by 19%, from 1.613 BGY (6.1bn liters) to 1.927 BGY (7.3bn liters), and planned capacity rose even further by 24%, from 2.331 BGY (8.8bn liters) to 2.898 BGY (11bn liters).

Total planned capacity for biodiesel in the U.S. now equates to roughly 189,000 boe/d.

The U.S. thus has an overall planned liquid biofuel capacity of 795,700 barrels of oil equivalent per day - an impressive number, making planned biofuel capacity in the U.S. larger than the total petroleum output of OPEC member Qatar: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Golbitz noted that one factor contributing to the strong showing for biodiesel is optimism that the $1 per gallon federal subsidy for biodiesel will be extended with the passage of the 2007 Farm Bill later this year.

The Index summary also discusses issues surrounding feedstock availability, noting a movement away from reliance only on soybean oil and towards the use of alternative feedstocks in the capacity build-out of biodiesel plants.

According to the Index, only 39% of capacity currently under construction, and just 16% of planned capacity, indicates soybean oil as the sole feedstock. "Given the development of trends that we have observed over the last six months, we expect convergence in the price of all commodity fats and oils over the next 6 to 12 months that will leave little to no additional margin for biodiesel producers that use alternative sources," Golbitz noted.

Commenting on the slight decrease in new ethanol plants being build, Golbitz said that "while the percent change is too small and the time frame too short to identify this as a definitive trend, we understand from industry sources that it is more difficult to secure debt financing for new refineries due largely to increased equity requirements on the part of banks providing this funding. We suspect that an additional cause may be constraints on the amount of corn available as a feedstock to produce ethanol."

Map: distribution of existing and planned ethanol plants in the United States, as of June 2007. Credit: DTN Ethanol Center.

References:
SoyaTech: Growth Strong in Biofuels Projects, Corn-Based Ethanol May Be Leveling Off: New Results from Soyatech's Quarterly Biofuels Index - August 22, 2007.





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Worldwatch Institute chief: biofuels could end global malnourishment

Earlier, Jacques Diouf, the director-general of the most authoritative food and agriculture research organisation, the UN's Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said biofuels and bioenergy "provides us with a historic chance to fast-forward growth in many of the world's poorest countries" (previous post). Now Christopher Flavin, the president of the Worldwatch Institute (WWI), one of the leading think tanks that works for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society, says biofuels could help tackle malnourishment and food insecurity on a global scale.

In an interview conducted by Dutch news agencies, the chief of the WWI says that the vast bulk of the world's poor, who can be found in rural areas, benefit from both the opportunity of biofuels as well as from increasing prices for agricultural commodities.

Flavin says prices for agricultural commodities have been low and declining for decades, with disastrous consequences for the 3.5 billion farmers on the planet who depend on global market forces.

"Farmers in the poorest countries were pushed out of the market by American and European subsidies for crops such as grain, cotton and sugar", the WRI's chief says. "Higher prices will for the first time allow them to sell at a decent price." This will help lift poor farmers - who make up between 70 even 90% of the population in most sub-Saharan African countries - out of their miserable situation.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, higher agricultural prices actually boost the food security of the poorest, Flavin says. However, the social segment made up by the urban poor, still small compared to the rural poor but growing, will need assistance.

The counter-intuitive idea that higher agricultural prices boost the food security of the poor, is based on the well-understood fact that food insecurity is not the result of a scarcity of food, but of poverty and lack of income to buy food, which is actually very abundant (earlier post). Biofuels bring this much needed income, on a micro-economic level.

But biofuels offer a major advantage for third world countries on a macro-economic level as well. Dependence on imported oil is highly damaging to the economy of these countries, some of who now spend twice as much on buying oil products than on social and health services. By building a biofuels industry, these countries can save on scarce foreign currency. Of the 47 poorest countries on the planet, 38 are net importers of oil, and 25 are fully dependent on imports.

"But in order for the world's 800 million malnourished people to benefit from the biofuels revolution, the global agricultural market must be reformed radically", Flavin says. "Likewise, infrastructures have to be developed". The WWI chief hints at removing trade barriers to biofuels in order to allow countries in the South to benefit from their comparative advantages by exporting biofuels. In this he joins former World Bank chief-economist Joseph Stiglitz (earlier post), the IEA's chief Claude Mandil (previous post), and its chief-economist Fatih Birol (here) and many others:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Worldwatch Institute is not questioning whether biofuels will play a major role in the global fuel market - that is a certainty - the question is when and how.

Flavin recommends the development of strong, global policies that guarantee the many social and poverty-alleviating benefits of biofuels come into effect and benefit the poorest. The president also urges the transfer of biofuel technologies to the developing countries to ensure that the fast transition towards the green fuels is as efficient as possible: "We must avoid a repetition of the social and economic problems we have seen arising out of the oil industry".

Scientists have found that countries in the Global South have a major potential to produce a vast amount of biofuels in a sustainable way. Under an optimistic scenario, by 2050, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa could supply around 650Exajoules of bioenergy. The world's total current energy cosumption from all sources (coal, oil, gas, nuclear) stands at around 400Ej. These scenarios are based on ensuring that both the food, feed, and fiber needs of growing populations are first met, and on a "no-deforestation" basis.

In short, the potential for sustainably produced biofuels in the developing world is enormous. It is now a matter of ensuring that this is tapped in a socially acceptable way.

Translated by Jonas Van Den Berg

References:
IPS: Biobrandstof biedt arme boeren hoop - August 19, 2007.

Flemish Information Center on Agriculture and Horticulture: Ook arme landen profiteren van biobrandstoffen - August 17, 2007.

Biopact: A look at Africa's biofuels potential- July 30, 2006


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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Researchers look at impacts of fossil fuel choices; find LNG to have high carbon footprint

A team of Carnegie Mellon University researchers report that the choices U.S. officials make today could limit how the nation's future energy needs are met and could cost consumers billions in idle power plants and associated infrastructure systems. Their findings about decisions on liquefied natural gas (LNG) are important for the bioenergy community because in the near future ultra-clean carbon-negative biomethane production could be fused with existing LNG production sites. Biopact will share preliminary results from a study on these options at the upcoming Sparks & Flames energy conference at which the organisation will chair a session on carbon-negative energy, part of the Gas Storage & Trading Summit (earlier post).

In the upcoming September 1 edition of the journal Environmental Science and Technology, Paulina Jaramillo, W. Michael Griffin and H. Scott Matthews compared the greenhouse gas as well as SOx, and NOx life-cycle emissions for different fossil fuel combinations used to generate electricity: natural gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG), synthetic natural gas (SNG) via coal gasification-methanation, and coal. The objective of this study was to compare the emissions of NG/LNG/SNG versus coal.

At first instance, their estimates suggest that with the current fleet of power plants, a mix of domestic NG, LNG, and SNG would have lower GHG emissions than coal. But if advanced technologies with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) are used coal and a mix of domestic NG, LNG, and SNG would have very similar life-cycle GHG emissions. For SOx and NOx they find there are significant emissions in the upstream stages of the NG/LNG life-cycles, which contribute to a larger range in SOx and NOx emissions for NG/LNG than for coal and SNG. Thus, LNG imported from foreign countries and used for electricity generation could have 35 percent higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than coal used in advanced CCS power plants.
Investing in LNG infrastructure today could make sense if it helps moderate natural gas prices and keeps existing natural gas power plants running. But making this investment ultimately locks us into certain technologies that make it harder for us to change paths in an increasingly carbon-constrained world. - H. Scott Matthews, associate professor in Carnegie Mellon's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.
The 1990s saw a surge in construction of natural gas power plants, fueled by cheap natural gas, low investment requirements and the idea that natural gas was less carbon-intensive than coal. Since these plants were constructed, natural gas prices have skyrocketed as the North American natural gas supply has become more limited. These gas plants are now operating at a very low capacity, fueling the energy industry's interest in increasing gas supply by using LNG:
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Those decisions are complicated by the fact that natural gas prices may stay high because of maturing North American gas fields. Natural gas production in North America has been flat or down in each of the past six years, according to the federal government's Energy Information Administration. Increasingly, domestic natural gas will be drawn from nontraditional and more expensive sources that require the development of more complex networks to extract and deliver it to the U.S. market.

However, the increased imports of LNG and all of its indirect impacts could eliminate the environmental benefits of natural gas over coal when future carbon mitigation technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) are adopted.

The researchers point out that LNG has many indirect impacts compared to domestic gas. LNG is extracted in a foreign country, liquefied, put into a tanker to cross oceans, and then regasified and put into pipelines when it reaches the U.S. Each of these steps leads to indirect environmental impacts, such as carbon dioxide emissions from changing from gas to liquid and back. In addition, the facilities and tankers necessary to liquefy, move and regasify the natural gas expected are not plentiful and those in the works will not be up-and-running for several years.

The Carnegie Mellon research team also argues that the U.S. shouldn't rush to invest large amounts in a new infrastructure, such as the LNG infrastructure, without analyzing all the indirect implications of those investments compared to alternative supply options. In addition, utilities and the government should put more effort into conservation and energy efficiency that could help reduce the need for large investments. As the options grow more complicated, the choices become harder and harder.

Carbon-negative biomethane
The Carnegie Mellon suggestions are fundamental, but they do not take into account the emergence of a new energy concept, based on coupling biogas production to LNG export infrastructrues. Biopact is currently conducting a basic lifecycle and economic feasibility assessment of the opportunity to produce biogas close to such existing LNG facilities. The concept consists of capturing and storing carbon dioxide from biogas which results in carbon-negative and ultra-clean biomethane (schematic, click to enlarge). This upgraded bio-based gas is then integrated into the existing LNG upstream.

Given the fact that separating CO2 from biogas before it is combusted is considerably less costly than capturing carbon from fossil fuels, we predict it might become a feasible option to couple biogas with CCS to existing LNG infrastructures. Storage of the carbon dioxide can occur in oil and gas fields to enhance the recovery of these resources, or in (onshore) saline aquifers which hold large potential and are found to be abundant near some of the largest current LNG sites in the Global South (more here: "Deep geological CO2 storage: principles, and prospecting for bioenergy disposal sites", *.pdf).

In December of this year, the United Nations Climate Change Conference will convene in Bali, Indonesia, to prepare the post-Kyoto future. This meeting will be crucial for the future of carbon markets. Some are working towards the adoption of measures that allow bioenergy producers to bank in on carbon-negative biofuels. It is within this context that the commercial feasibility of carbon-negative biogas production coupled to LNG will be determined. If enough voices favor a transition towards a global carbon market, then such projects might become profitable.

Biopact will share preliminary results of its assessment at the upcoming Sparks & Flames energy conference at which the organisation will chair a session on carbon-negative energy, part of the Gas Storage and Trading Summit.

The Carnegie Mellon insights on the GHG emissions of LNG might have to be adapted with these new perspectives in mind, and vice-versa.

On another note, even though co-firing biomass with coal is already practised on a relatively large scale in Europe, the study did not look at the use of biomass in CCS-power plants.

References:
Jaramillo, P.; Griffin, W. M.; Matthews, H. S., "Comparative Life-Cycle Air Emissions of Coal, Domestic Natural Gas, LNG, and SNG for Electricity Generation", Environ. Sci. Technol. 2007; ASAP Article; DOI: 10.1021/es063031o

Haszeldine, R. S.,"Deep geological CO2 storage: principles, and prospecting for bioenergy disposal sites", Draft for Paris IEA meeting - September 24, 2004

Biopact: Pre-combustion CO2 capture from biogas - the way forward? - March 31, 2007.


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Biodiesel in Thailand less costly than petro-diesel, as Bangchak Petroleum plans new facility

Some interesting numbers come from Thailand, where Bangchak Petroleum Plc plans to invest between 900 million and 1 billion baht (€20.5-22.8/$27.8-30.9 million) to build a biodiesel plant by the end of this year.

Patiparn Sukorndhaman, Bangchak's senior executive vice-president, told reporters that biodiesel produced locally costs 70 satang (70 cents) per litre less than conventional diesel. Since 2005, diesel has seen a continuous price hike, with the government feeling the pinch of subsidizing the fuel. First-generation biodiesel being competitive at current prices, Sukorndhaman thinks the alternative fuel will become increasingly popular locally.

Starting in April next year, the Thai government will call on local oil companies to switch all their diesel products to B2, a blend of 2% biodiesel and 98% diesel fuel. The move would encourage and build up confidence among motorists to use the much cheaper B5 fuel currently marketed by Bangchak Petroleum. Bangchak Petroleum offers B5 at 300 of its fuel stations and is planning to increase the number to 500 before the end of 2007.

A recent project coordinated by the Thai government and executed by Bangchak Petroleum in the city Chiang Mai, saw 1,300 public-transport buses utilizing unsubsidized B2, which was 0.5 bath per liter less costly than diesel (overview of this and other projects).

The biodiesel currently produced by the company relies on waste vegetable oils. Bangchak Petroleum has opened units to buy used vegetable oils from towns and communities for the production of biodiesel at its oil refinery in Sukhumvit. It also sources waste oil from various markets in Bangkok.

Bangchak Petroleum's new plant, with a daily production capacity of 300,000 litres per day (78,000 gallons), will use waste and palm oil. It is scheduled to be completed within 20-23 months. The plant would be located near Bangchak's existing oil storage facilities in Bang Pa-in, Ayutthaya (see map, click to enlarge), to save the company's logistics cost:
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Bangchak is now the leader in Thailand's biodiesel market, with a share of 78.6% of total market volume of 30 million litres per month, followed by PTT Plc with 21.4%. Patiparn said the company's biodiesel production output rose by 47% to 28.7 million litres per month over the past six months.

Of the total investment in the new plant, up to 300 million baht would come from the company's capital and the rest from loans, which would lift its debt-to-equity ratio to two times from 0.6 currently.

Patiparn said Bangchak forecast its total revenue would grow 15% this year to 107.57 billion baht although its gross refining margin would decline to below US$2.90 per barrel this year on average compared to more than $3 per barrel on average last year.

The revenue growth would be contributed by the company's promising exports of fuel oil, which account for 30% of its total output, to China. This year, it will ship around 25,000 barrels per day of fuels to China, almost double the 14,000 barrels per day last year. The export price is now around $8-10 per barrel.

Nevertheless, the exports would have to be terminated in the fourth quarter when its product quality improvement (PQI) facilities have been completed. The facilities will transform fuel oil into more lucrative lighter fuel products including gasoline and diesel.

Bangchak will shut down two-thirds of its production capacity for 12 days in February next year, which will cause its capacity to decrease to 40,000-50,000 barrels per day from 70,000 barrels currently.

Bangchak now ranks fourth in the local fuel retail market, with a 12.5% share or 180 million litres per month, after PTT (32.9%), Esso (17.5%), and Shell (15.9%).

The company is also investing in the production of ethanol made from cassava.

References:

Bangchak Petroleum: renewable energy.

Bangkok Post: Bangchak plans biodiesel plant - B900m facility to be located in Ayutthaya - August 23, 2007.


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USDA awards $97 million in loans for bioenergy projects

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns yesterday announced the award of US$97 million in guaranteed loans to help businesses in Georgia, Illinois and North Carolina create jobs and develop bioenergy systems.

The four recipients received funding through the United States Department of Agriculture's Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (Section 9006) guaranteed loan program and the Business and Industry (B&I) guaranteed loan program. The Section 9006 program provides financial assistance to agricultural producers and rural small businesses to install renewable energy projects or make energy efficiency improvements. The Business and Industry program complements the existing private credit structure by guaranteeing loans that will provide lasting community and economic benefits, such as for business expansions.

The selected projects include:
  • Clean Burn Fuels LLC of North Carolina, which was approved to receive $10 million from the Section 9006 program and a $25 million B&I loan guarantee to construct a new first generation ethanol plant that is expected to produce 60 million gallons (227 million liters) of ethanol per year. The plant has potential room for expansion to 220 million gallons (832 million liters) per year. Clean Burn Fuels expects work to begin in the second quarter of 2007.
  • Blackhawk Biofuels LLC, Illinois, is approved for a $7.5 million Section 9006 loan and a $20 million B&I loan to build and operate a 30-million-gallon (114 million liters) first generation biodiesel facility. Soybean oil, other vegetable oils, and possibly animal fat will be used as feedstocks.
  • Appling County Pellets from Georgia is approved to receive a $10 million Section 9006 loan and a $9.5 million B&I loan to produce up to 130,000 metric tons of wood pellets to be sold in domestic and international markets.
  • National Trail Biodiesel, Illinois, also approved to receive a $10 million Section 9006 loan and a $5 million B&I loan to build and operate a 30-million-gallon-per-year (114 million liters) biodiesel production facility in Jasper County. The plant will use soy oil.
USDA Rural Development's mission is to increase economic opportunity and improve the quality of life for rural residents:
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Rural Development has invested more than $76.8 billion since 2001 for equity and technical assistance to finance and foster growth in homeownership, business development, and critical community and technology infrastructure.
These funds are part of USDA's ongoing commitment to bring greater economic opportunities to rural citizens. They will help rural communities create jobs and strong, competitive business enterprises. - Mike Johanns, U.S. Agriculture Secretary
More than 1.5 million jobs have been created or saved through these investments.



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Canada's government invests $1 million in 12 biofuel projects in Quebec

Canada's new government announced it is investing $992,563 in 12 projects designed to help the nascent biofuels industry in Quebec. Through the Biofuels Opportunities for Producers Initiative (BOPI), organizations will receive funding to conduct feasibility studies and develop business plans for biofuel projects.

BOPI is a two-year $20 million commitment by Canada's new government designed to provide farmers and rural communities with opportunities to participate in, and benefit from, increased Canadian biofuels production. The initiative helps agricultural producers and others develop sound business proposals, as well as undertake feasibility or other studies to support the creation and expansion of biofuel production capacity. It is delivered through the industry councils in each province and territory that administer Agriculture and Agri-food Canada's Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Program.

On July 5, 2007, Prime Minister Harper announced that the government will provide up to $1.5 billion over nine years to support the production of renewable fuels. In addition, since coming to office, Canada's New Government has announced it will invest $500 million in biofuels and bio-products initiatives to assist farmers and rural communities to seize new market opportunities in the bioeconomy (earlier post).

Canada aims for a 5 percent average renewable fuel content in transportation fuels by 2010 and intends to regulate a 2 percent requirement for renewable content in diesel fuel and heating oil by 2012.

Small projects
Funding under BOPI for Quebec is provided through the Conseil pour le developpement de l'agriculture du Quebec (CDAQ). The 12 selected projects include:
  • $300,000 to the Federation des producteurs de bovins du Quebec to develop engineering phases leading to the construction of an integrated facility for processing slaughter and dead animal by-products into biofuel.
  • $187,808 to Nutrinor, Cooperative agroalimentaire du Saguenay, Lac St-Jean to develop a business plan and required studies for construction of a biodiesel microproduction facility.
  • $108,800 to Societe 9043-3616 Quebec inc. St-Alexis-de-Montcalm - Lanaudiere to develop a feasibility study and business plan for the construction of a biofuel facility from existing infrastructures.
  • $98,393 to Potager Meunier inc., St-Roch-de-L'Achigan - Lanaudiere to develop a feasibility study concerning the construction of a pilot ethanol and by-products production facility from willow crops:
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  • $71,561 to the Federation des producteurs de cultures commerciales du Quebec to position grain producers in Quebec and facilitate their uptake of biofuel market opportunities.
  • $70,256 to the Ferme Gaston Roy, Sainte-Marguerite to develop a feasibility study for a biodiesel production unit in the Quebec City region.
  • $42,999 to La Cooperative federee du Quebec, Montreal to contribute to the gathering of information for the preparation of a biofuel development policy and feasibility study for the production of ethanol and biodiesel.
  • $39,375 to Serge Quintal, Saint-Ignace-de-Standbridge to develop a feasibility study and production of a business plan for the construction of a biodiesel production plant.
  • $23,800 to the Syndicat des producteurs de cultures commerciales du Centre-du-Quebec to develop a feasibility study concerning biodiesel production from oilcrops oil.
  • $19,580 to the Institut de recherche et de developpement en agroenvironnement, Ste-Foy to determine the potential for biomass production from various vegetable species and the quality of their ligno-cellulosic complex for ethanol processing.
  • $16,000 to Les Huiles naturelles d'Amérique, Les Cèdres to develop a feasibility study for biofuel production in a small-size facility, Suroît region (in the western Montérégie).
  • $13,991 to Coopérative agricole Profid'Or, Joliette - Lanaudière to develop a feasibility study concerning the construction of an ethanol production facility from sugar beet.
Christian Paradis, Secretary of State for Agriculture announced the investment on behalf of the Gerry Ritz, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and Minister for the Canadian Wheat Board. He said: "Canada's New Government is helping to ensure that producers are able to participate in and benefit from increased biofuels production in Canada. The renewable energy industry holds great potential for enhancing the economic prosperity of Quebec."

For his part, Mr. Laurent Pellerin, Chair of the Conseil pour le developpement de l'agriculture du Quebec (CDAQ), which administers the BOPI program in Quebec said: "Through their involvement in developing biofuels, Quebec's farm producers have once again shown that they share the environmental concerns of their fellow citizens while exploring new markets,"

Background
The Government of Canada is committed to establishing regulations that will require 5 percent average renewable fuel content in transportation fuels by 2010 and intends to regulate a 2 percent requirement for renewable content in diesel fuel and heating oil by 2012. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) wants to ensure that these targets are implemented in ways that result in the greatest possible benefit to the agricultural sector, including ownership of biofuels production facilities by agricultural producers.

On July 17, 2006, Canada's New Government announced $10 million in funding for the Biofuels Opportunities for Producers Initiative (BOPI) to be delivered through the industry councils in each province and territory that administer the Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food (ACAAF) Program.

Due to the high demand from producers and industry, on March 3, 2007, Canada's New Government announced an additional $10 million in BOPI funding. An additional $3 million was made available last fiscal year to fund additional projects and $7 million is being provided this fiscal year (2007-2008) for new BOPI project proposals, bringing the total up to $20 million over the two fiscal years.

The BOPI, delivered through the industry councils in each province/territory that administer AAFC's ACAAF Program, was developed to help meet this goal. Individual project funding is capped at $300,000 and at least 25 per cent of the project cost must be provided by the industry, of which one third must come from producers.

References:
Conseil pour le développement de l'agriculture du Québec

Biofuels Opportunities for Producers Initiative


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BP Australia signs large biofuel supply agreement, becomes leading marketer

BP Australia and Manildra Energy Australia announced today one of Australia’s largest biofuels supply agreements, a deal which will result in nearly half of BP’s fuel sales in New South Wales containing renewable ethanol.

BP will receive from Manildra’s Bomaderry ethanol plant 40 million litres of ethanol over the next year, with deliveries to commence this month. The agreement with Manildra combined with BP’s existing 15 million litre ethanol supply deal with CSR makes BP the largest marketer of biofuels in Australia.

Both BP and Manildra have also commenced negotiations to extend the agreement for a further two years.

BP’s ethanol fuel blend has the following properties and will be marketed as follows:
  • The new BP Unleaded 91 is a specially formulated 91 octane unleaded petrol blended with up to 10% renewable ethanol.
  • BP will offer new BP Unleaded 91 to New South Wales motorists at a three cents per litre discount through the company’s Biorewards program.
  • By the end of the year (2007) all of the 50 BP branded service stations in New South Wales will be selling new BP Unleaded petrol in place of regular Unleaded petrol.
The ethanol will be blended at the Newcastle and Parramatta fuel terminals to result in the BP Unleaded 91 fuel that will be sold across New South Wales. BP is investing approximately $4 million to enable the delivery, storage and blending of ethanol to take place at both of these terminals. The new facilities at BP’s Newcastle Terminal commenced operation earlier this month, with Parramatta’s facilities to be operational towards the end of this year.

BP has been marketing ethanol blended fuel in Queensland since 2001 and will now be able to commence the rollout to BP branded service stations in New South Wales, with the fuel to be available at about 50 additional locations by the end of the year. Over the next few years BP’s planned rollout of ethanol blended fuel in New South Wales will see this number of service stations at least doubling:
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BP Australia's president said that the company’s actions demonstrated its commitment to create a sustainable future for biofuels in Australia.
Increasing the supply of biofuels is part of BP’s long term strategy to provide Australian motorists with the choice of a range of cleaner fuels. Selling more ethanol blended fuel at more service stations is just one part of our strategy. Supplying large volumes of biofuels also requires large scale supply agreements and the investment in necessary infrastructure. - Gerry Hueston, BP Australia President
Getting all three necessities in place has required considerable work over the past year. This commitment from BP has ensured that today’s announcement ticks all of the boxes for bringing biofuels into the mainstream in a way that ensures it is around to stay.

Manildra is a major Australian producer of food grade and industrial alcohol for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

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Storing hydrogen in solid ammonia borane pellets

Hydrogen may prove to be the fuel of the future in powering the efficient, eco-friendly fuel cell vehicles of tomorrow. The clean gas can be made from renewables such as biomass, wind and solar. However, developing a method to safely store, dispense and easily 'refuel' the vehicle's storage material with hydrogen has baffled researchers for years. A new and attractive storage medium being developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientists may provide the 'power of pellets' to fuel future transportation needs.

The Department of Energy's Chemical Hydrogen Storage Center of Excellence is investigating a hydrogen storage medium that holds promise in meeting long-term targets for transportation use. As part of the center, PNNL scientists are using solid ammonia borane (NH3BH3), or AB, compressed into small pellets to serve as a hydrogen storage material. Each milliliter of AB weighs about three-quarters of a gram and harbors up to 1.8 liters of hydrogen. Researchers expect that a fuel system using small AB pellets will occupy less space and be lighter in weight than systems using pressurized hydrogen gas, thus enabling fuel cell vehicles to have room, range and performance comparable to today's automobiles.
With this new understanding and our improved methods in working with ammonia borane, we're making positive strides in developing a viable storage medium to provide reliable, environmentally friendly hydrogen power generation for future transportation needs. - Dave Heldebrant, PNNL
A small pellet of solid ammonia borane (240 mg), as shown in the picture, is capable of storing relatively large quantities of hydrogen (0.5 liter) in a very small volume:
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PNNL scientists are learning to manipulate the release of hydrogen from AB at predictable rates. By varying temperature and manipulating AB feed rates to a reactor, researchers envision controlling the production of hydrogen and thus fuel cell power, much like a gas pedal regulates fuel to a car's combustion engine.

Once hydrogen from the storage material is depleted, the AB pellets must be safely and efficiently regenerated by way of chemical processing. This 'refueling' method requires chemically digesting or breaking down the solid spent fuel into chemicals that can be recycled back to AB with hydrogen.

Earlier, other scientists found a way to convert carbohydrates directly into biohydrogen using synthetic enzymes. Their findings may one day allow us to store dry starch as a biofuel in our gas cars, which would be an equally safe way to 'store' hydrogen - or at least its feedstock (earlier post).


Image: A small pellet of solid ammonia borane (240 mg), as shown, is capable of storing relatively large quantities of hydrogen (0.5 liter) in a very small volume. Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

References:
Donald M. Camaioni, David J. Heldebrant, John C. Linehan, Wendy J. Shaw, Jun Li, Daniel L. DuBois, and Tom Autrey; "Toward regenerating ammonia borane from spent fuel” (FUEL 137), 234th American Chemical Society National Meeting, Boston - August 21, 2007.

David J. Heldebrant, Tom Autrey, John C. Linehan, Donald M. Camaioni, Scot D. Rassat, and Feng Zheng; “Effect of additives on the thermolysis of ammonia borane” (FUEL 164), 234th American Chemical Society National Meeting, Boston - August 21, 2007.

PNNL: Pellets of power designed to deliver hydrogen for tomorrow's vehicles - August 21, 2007.


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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Researchers develop method to decude proteins secreted by bacteria - biofuel applications

Researchers at the North East Regional e-Science Centre in Newcastle have developed a method that allows scientists to deduce and characterize proteins secreted by bacteria by looking at the genome sequences of the organisms. The technique is showing promise of commercial application in the bioenergy sector, as plant-derived enzymes used for biofuel, biohydrogen and biogas production are proteins harvested from bacteria which secrete them naturally. The new screening method may allow researchers to find better enzymes more rapidly and efficiently.

According to Dr. Anil Wipat, Professor Colin Harwood, Tracy Craddock and colleagues at the e-Science Centre secreted proteins equip a bacterium to survive in its environment and so reveal much about its lifestyle. A soil-living bacterium, for example, secretes proteins that enable it to take up nutrients from the soil. A disease-causing bacterium may secrete proteins that subvert the host's immune system, enabling the bacterium to infect cells or survive in the bloodstream. Knowledge of a pathogenic bacterium's secreted proteins and how they function can therefore help with the search for treatments.

As genes carry the code for proteins, researchers are able to use knowledge of a bacterium's genes to deduce all the proteins it produces. Difficulty arises when trying to pick out only the proteins that are secreted. Methods exist to do this, but are very time-consuming, given that many bacteria secrete 4000 or more proteins. Now, however, the Newcastle researchers have developed an automatic method which makes the identification, analysis and comparison of bacterial secreted proteins from many organisms a realistic proposition.

Based on Taverna workflow technology, which was developed under myGrid, an e-Science project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), it performs a series of analyses on all the proteins produced by a bacterium to create, by a process of selection and elimination, a list of secreted proteins and their properties. The results are stored in a database. Before this new method, researchers would have had to perform these operations manually, often retrieving algorithms for performing the analyses from separate, distributed computers:
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The new screening method has already shown interesting results: it allowed the researchers to explain why the proteins secreted by the deadly anthrax bacterium equip it to grow only in an animal host and not in the soil.

These insights were the result of a test of their method on 12 members of the Bacillus family. Family members exhibit a variety of behaviours ranging from the friendly Bacillus subtilis, which lives in the soil, promotes plant growth and is used to produce industrial enzymes and vitamins, to the deadly Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax. The full complement of proteins produced by the Bacillus family was fed into the workflow. The number of secreted proteins predicted for each member ranged between 350 and 500.

The secreted proteins were then put through a second workflow which placed them into groups of proteins with similar functions. Of particular interest were groups containing proteins secreted only by pathogenic members and only by non-pathogenic members. Secreted proteins unique to the non-pathogenic bacteria have functions that enable them to live in their habitats, whereas almost all of those unique to the pathogenic family members were of unknown function.

The predicted secreted proteins from Bacillus anthracis help to explain its inability to grow in soil. "When we looked at the secreted proteins, we found that they're not adapted to utilise molecules in the soil," says Professor Harwood. However, they do enable Bacillus anthracis to grow in an animal host. Some break down animal protein such as muscle fibres, others are the toxins which eventually kill the host, but others belong to the group of proteins of unknown function unique to pathogenic bacteria. "We don't know what these latter proteins do but we think they help the organism to evade the immune response," says Professor Harwood. "We're beginning to understand why Bacillus anthracis behaves in the way that it does - and how it has adapted only to grow in the host and not in the soil," he adds.

The trials on the Bacillus family and the new insights into the characteristics of anthrax, thus showed the versatility and efficiency of the protein deduction method.

The team is now setting up a website to guide users through the process for any bacterium whose genome is known. By identifying the secreted proteins it will be possible to determine some of the previously unsuspected properties of a bacterium, including whether it is likely to be pathogenic or not. The method is also showing promise of commercial application as many enzymes sold commercially, such as plant-derived enzymes used for biofuel production, are proteins harvested from bacteria which secrete them naturally.

References:
Research Councils UK: Anthrax bacterium's deadly secrets probed - August 8, 2007.


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Nuclear power complex that integrates biofuel production leads Nuclear Regulatory Commission's new reactor list

Even though Biopact is sceptical of the benefits of the global rush towards building more nuclear power plants, an interesting development comes from the U.S., where a proposed facility will be integrated with liquid and gaseous biofuel production. The project announces that it leads the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's new reactor list as the first green field commercial nuclear plant in over 25 years.

The Idaho Energy Complex (IEC), a holding of Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc (AEHI), is a proposed US$3.5 billion commercial nuclear power generation facility to be constructed on a designated site near Grand View, Idaho. The electricity provided by the nuclear plant would be sufficient to power Idaho's growing needs and allow the elimination of fossil fuels for current power production. Interestingly, excess heat from the nuclear reactor would be used to produce ethanol and biomethane from local crops and agricultural waste.

The biofuel production plant will provide a market for local crops, agricultural waste and livestock and dairy farmers. AEHI has already formed an alliance with local Idaho dairy farmers for the co-production of methane.

Unlike traditional biofuel plants, which often burn the waste streams after ethanol biorefining for the production heat, IEC’s use of waste heat from the nuclear reactor will allow these biomass resources to be reemployed as nutrient enriched feed for beef or dairy cattle, a higher-value use. Animal waste will then be collected and utilized to generate biogas by anaerobic digestion - a process that requires heat, also to be sourced from the nuclear power plant. The IEC is looking into upgrading this biogas to biomethane by separating the carbon dioxide and utilizing it to grow additional crops in greenhouses:
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Organic compost and nutrient-rich digester effluents are also produced by the anaerobic digestion. Organic compost is used as animal bedding or a high value replacement for peat moss in potting mixes at nurseries. Furthermore, organic liquid fertilizers are used in sub-surface drip fertigation systems to more than double conventional yields for crops such as corn and triticale, both of which are utilized as ethanol feedstocks.

AEHI announced that its nuclear/biofuel project tied for the lead on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) list of green field commercial nuclear plants seeking construction and operating application approval. AEHI has selected Unistar Nuclear to assist with completing the NRC approval process for construction of the first Areva advanced nuclear power plant in North America.

According to the company, public support continues to grow in Idaho for this proposed 1600 Megawatt plant, which will both assist the local economy and reduce the state's dependence on imported electricity.

References:
MarketWire: AEHI Leads Nuclear Regulatory Commission's New Reactor List as First Green Field Commercial Nuclear Plant in Over 25 Years - August 21, 2007.

MarketWire: AEHI Forms Alliance With Local Farmers to Co-Produce Methane at Its Proposed Advanced Nuclear Plant in Idaho - August 15, 2007.


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New catalysts may create more, cheaper (bio)hydrogen

A new class of catalysts created at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory may help scientists and engineers overcome some of the hurdles that have inhibited the production of hydrogen for use in fuel cells. The news is important for the bioenergy community, because the catalysts can be used to reform biofuels into biohydrogen.

Fuel cells are being developed and implemented for applications ranging from stationary power generation, primary and auxilary power in automobiles and trucks to battery replacements in consumer electronics. In all cases the fuel cell operates on hydrogen, but the primary fuel can vary from natural gas to liquid hydrocarbons to biofuels. To reform these fuels either steam or air or both are used, but the processing detail can be challenging.

Argonne chemist Michael Krumpelt and his colleagues in Argonne's Chemical Engineering Division used 'single-site' catalysts based on ceria or lanthanum chromite doped with either platinum or ruthenium to boost hydrogen production at lower temperatures during reforming. They succeeded in making significant progress in bringing the rate of reaction to where applications require it to be.

Most hydrogen produced industrially is created through steam reforming. In this process, a nickel-based catalyst is used to react natural gas with steam to produce pure hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

These nickel catalysts typically consist of metal grains tens of thousands of atoms in diameter that speckle the surface of metal oxide substrates. Conversely, the new catalysts that Krumpelt developed consist of single atomic sites imbedded in an oxide matrix. The difference is akin to that between a yard strewn with several large snowballs and one covered by a dusting of flakes. Because some reforming processes tend to clog much of the larger catalysts with carbon or sulfur byproducts, smaller catalysts process the fuel much more efficiently and can produce more hydrogen at lower temperatures.

Krumpelt's initial experiments with single-site catalysts used platinum in gadolinium-doped ceria that, though it started to reform hydrocarbons at temperatures as low as 450 degrees Celsius, became unstable at higher temperatures. As he searched for more robust materials that would support the oxidation-reduction reaction cycle at the heart of hydrocarbon reforming, Krumpelt found that if he used ruthenium - which costs only one percent as much as platinum - in a perovskite matrix, then he could initiate reforming at 450 degrees Celsius and still have good thermal stability:
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The use of the LaCrRuO3 perovskite offers an additional advantage over traditional catalysts. While sulfur species in the fuel degraded the traditional nickel, and to a lesser extent even the single-site platinum catalysts, the crystalline structure of the perovskite lattice acts as a stable shell that protects the ruthenium catalyst from deactivation by sulfur.

Krumpelt will present an invited keynote talk describing these results during the 234th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston from August 18 to 23.

References:
Michael Krumpelt, "Challenges in hydrocarbon reforming for fuel cell applications"
FUEL 116 - American Chemical Society 234th National Meeting & Exposition August 19-23, 2007, Boston, MA USA

Argonne National Laboratory: New catalysts may create more, cheaper hydrogen - August 20, 2007.


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Fungi make biodiesel efficiently at room temperature

Scientists at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology have found a way to make an existing but expensive biodiesel production method far less costly. Their new method would increase the energy efficiency of fuel production.

Instead of mixing the ingredients and heating them for hours, the chemical engineers pass vegetable oil and methanol through a bed of pellets made from fungal spores of Metarhizium anisopliae. An enzyme produced by the fungus does the work - making biodiesel with impressive efficiency. The reaction occurs at room temperature.

Last Monday, Ravichandra Potumarthi showed off his work during a poster session titled at the International Conference on Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.

Typically, biodiesel is made via a process called transesterification: by mixing methanol with lye and vegetable oil and then heating the mixture for several hours, the methanol bonds to the oils to produce energetic molecules called esters. Unfortunately, heating the brew is a waste of energy. An enzyme called lipase can act as a catalyst to link oil to methanol without any extra heating. This method has been shown to work well [*.pdf], but the pure protein is expensive:
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Potumarthi has a simple solution. Why bother purifying the lipase? It would be easier to just find an organism that produces plenty of the enzyme and squish it into pellets. The fungus Metarhizium anisopliae does the trick.

Recently, several huge research centers have sprung up to develop better ways to make biofuels. Considering that a handful of chemical engineers can accomplish so much on what appears to be a shoestring budget, the future of alternative fuels looks pretty good.

Image: Scanning Electron Microscope of Metarhizium anisopliae in an oil formulation.

References:
Wired Science: Fungi Make Biodiesel Efficiently at Room Temperature - August 20, 2007.

P. Ravichandra: "Novel Strategic Method for the Improved Production of Bio-Diesel in an Expanded Bed Bioreactor Using Metarhizium anisopliae - MTCC 892", 3rd International Conference on Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, August 12-15, 2007, Biopolis, Singapore.

R. D. Abigor et al., "Lipase-catalysed production of biodiesel fuel from some Nigerian lauric oils" [*.pdf], Biochemical Society Transactions (2000), Volume 28, part 6.


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Mitsubishi Corp creates firm to produce biomass pellets

Japan's largest trading company Mitsubishi Corp. earlier announced it is making major investments in three types of biofuels (that can replace diesel, gasoline and coal). Yesterday, the company brought some clarity to its plans by explaining its interests in the solid biofuels segment. Mitsibushi says it has established a manufacturing and sales firm for wood pellets in southwestern Japan.

The company, based in Hita, Oita Prefecture, plans to install facilities to manufacture pellets made mainly of cedar bark with a maximum annual output of 25,000 tons, the largest in Japan. The biofuels will be mixed with coal and co-fired in order to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by coal-burning boilers.

The new company is owned 70 percent by Mitsubishi and the rest by a local lumbermill cooperative and another firm. Forestry is the main industry of Hita. For the time being, the company will sell the waste wood-made pellets to small firms in Oita that own coal-fired boilers.

Mitsubishi is currently in negotiations to build similar production facilities in other parts of Japan and it is looking to launch the business overseas, mainly in Asia, in the future. The company hopes to attain global biofuel pellet production of one million tons in 2010:
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The company will be involved in ethanol production as well, both in Japan and abroad. In one of the first few deals, Mitsubishi this month invested 300 million yen (€1.9/$2.6 million) to take a 34-percent stake in a government-backed project to build an ethanol plant with annual output of 15 million liters on the northern island of Hokkaido.

When it comes to biodiesel, the company plans to produce 1 to 1.5 million tonnes a year by 2017 after building plants in Asia or in Central and South America.

References:
Biopact: Mitsubishi Corp to invest in three types of biofuels both in Japan and abroad - August 16, 2007

JCN Network: Trader Mitsubishi Sets Up Firm to Make Wood-Based Biofuels - August 20, 2007.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Sun Grant Initiative funds 17 bioenergy research projects

The Sun Grant Initiative (SGI) in the South Central Region of the U.S. will be making available approximately US$2.5 million during the next three years to area scientists and engineers developing and enhancing new sources of energy based on biomass. 17 highly interesting projects have been selected for the first round of funding.

The SGI is a national program, headquartered at Oklahoma State University (OSU), and was established to create new solutions for America's energy needs and to revitalize rural communities by working with land-grant universities and their federal and state laboratory partners on research, education and extension programs.

The research projects are made possible through funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Two types of projects are being funded: seed-grant projects allowing investigators to explore possible renewable-energy sources and processes, funded at $35,000 per year up to two years, and integrated projects that require multi-institutional participation and are funded up to $125,000 per year for up to three years.

A competitive grants process selected 17 out of 76 projects from the South-Central Region which includes scientists and engineers at land-grant universities in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Projects cover a wide range of topics, from the logistics of biomass handling, over improved energy crop design to research into next-generation bioconversion technologies, innovative uses for byproducts and microorganisms. The selection provides a good overview of the challenges and opportunities offered by the complex, emerging bioeconomy. The following is an overview of the six projects falling under the category 'integrated research' (full project descriptions can be found here [*.doc]):

1. Researchers from Kansas State University (KSU) and Texas A&M University will develop high yielding designer sorghums for optimized low energy input ethanol production and high nutrition feed.

The goal is to develop a systems approach for designer sorghum cultivars to optimize the grain’s endosperm matrix for bio-ethanol conversion and grain distiller’s feed for low rain fed Texas environments. This approach will include protection of sorghum genetics with cultivars combining a high endosperm protein digestibility (HD) trait with a high amylopectin (waxy) starch trait. The scientists have generated data that suggest that both traits individually improve the endosperm matrix for low energy input gelatinization, enzymatic hydrolysis, and total ethanol production. Together, these two traits will be ideal for bio-ethanol conversion.
Bio-ethanol systems often sell the remaining grain by-products as a high protein feed supplement. Unfortunately, sorghum and corn grain are low in essential amino acids such as lysine. The HD trait also confers both a high protein bio-availability and high lysine content. As such, in the bio-ethanol-feed supplement system, the grain would also be optimized for feed. The proposal also explores the inclusion of vegetative tissue for lignocellulosic conversion into ethanol, best management practices to optimize the system for foliar and grain complex sugar retention, and a plan for future economic analysis of the competitiveness of this system with corn and sweet sorghum for the rain fed Texas environments.


2. A team of scientists from Louisiana State University and Texas A&M University will be developing a skid-mounted gasification system for on-site heat, fuel and power production.

The specific objectives of the project are as follows to investigate the technical feasibility of on-site thermal gasification systems with state-of-the art control systems for different unique biomass wastes in the region and evaluate the quality, composition, heat energy and power output. An evaluation of the economic feasibility of decentralized thermal gasification systems and development of economic models for different applications are an objective as well. Systems analysis will be conducted for the different applications within the region and lay-out strategies to reduce barriers for commercialization. Finally, the goal is to evaluate the environmental and air quality implications of the systems including permitting procedures.

At the end of the study modular gasification systems shall be developed whose size is applicable to several biomass generating industries in the region. The technical feasibility of both the fixed bed and fluidized bed gasification systems should have been clearly evaluated by bench-scale and field scale demonstration systems. The field demonstrations should be able to prove the technical functionality of the systems and its impact on reducing the heat and power requirement of a facility particularly industries generating biomass wastes on site (i.e. cotton gins, animal farms, etc).


3. Researchers at Texas A&M University and the University of Arkansas will be evaluating the energy and cost advantages of modules for packaging and transporting biomass energy crops:
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Goals of this project are: 1. To evaluate the energy, labor and capital requirements for converting standing switchgrass to chopped material suitable as feedstock for a bio-fuels refinery using conventional round bale and large modules as the storage forms. 2. Determine the optimum chopped switchgrass characteristics for formation and long-term stability of modules. 3. Determine the storage losses and protection requirements for switchgrass modules to minimize field to biorefinery losses.

Expected outcomes can be summarized as follows: 1. knowledge of the visco-elastic properties of chopped switchgrass material as a function of moisture and particle size. 2. information regarding trade offs between harvest moisture content and length of chop for purposes of module stability, handling and transport weight limitations. 3. a preliminary economic model that can perform sensitivity analysis on energy, labor and capital cost associated with the two proposed harvest, storage and transport systems. 4. a breakeven analysis regarding tradeoffs related to more extensive equipment utilization vs. likely switchgrass yield losses associated with extending the harvest window. 5. estimation of annual harvest capacity per harvest unit given typical weather data and optimal harvest window identified above. 6. detailed cost of production budgets from field to biorefinery for round baling and module building. 7. report on switchgrass production and harvest activity impact on other farm operation and processing activities.


4. OSU and Brigham Young University scientists will be studying the effects of syngas sources on ethanol production via fermentation. The researchers hope to design a more efficient and economically viable gasification-fermentation process:

Project deliverables include:
1.A database of biomass-syngas constituents based on several feedstocks including switchgrass, wheat straw, and corn gluten as well as co-firing of switchgrass and wheat straw with coal.
2. An assessment of biomass-syngas constituents on the effects of cell growth, substrate consumption, ethanol production, and enzyme activity.
3. An assessment of the effects of gasification agents on generated biomass-syngas species and the fermentation process.
4. The development of a scrubbing system to reduce nitric oxide levels.
5. The development of gas clean-up systems to reduce or eliminate other biomass-syngas contaminants that are found to affect the fermentation process adversely.


5. Researchers at OSU, Texas A&M University, Kansas State University and New Mexico State University will be evaluating sweet sorghum hybrids as a bioenergy feedstock.

The specific objectives of this project are: 1. Develop and select sweet sorghum hybrids for use as a bioenergy feedstock; 2. Examine adaptability of high biomass sorghum and sweet sorghum to the South Central U.S., including the Coastal Plains, High Plains, and the Central Great Plains; 3. Develop production guidelines for sweet sorghums for these production regions. Agronomic emphasis will be on seeding rate, nitrogen management, and multiple harvest efficacy and water use efficiency; 4. Evaluate the effects of juice press operation and time of harvest on juice yield and sugar content of the expressed juice; 5. Determine the relative efficiency of ethanol conversion from sweet sorghum (lbs/sugar/gallon ethanol) and assess the relative role genotype, environment and genotype x environment interaction on ethanol production potential.

There are two research components. The first will focus on breeding, development and release of sweet sorghum hybrids for commercial production and the second will focus on production, processing and conversion issues of sweet sorghum cultivars and hybrids. Given that the cooperators are strategically located through a diverse set of production environments, we have divided the South Central area into three regions; (i) the Coastal Plain, from the Rio Grande through Louisiana, (ii) the High Plains region, including eastern New Mexico to Western Kansas, (iii) the South Central Great Plains region, including Central Kansas and Oklahoma.. Within each region, specific research objectives will be addressed based on the expertise and research interests of the faculty in that region. A common theme of all research is that it will focus on the sweet sorghum hybrids so that production systems are optimized for their release, adaptation and utilization.

Preliminary sweet sorghum hybrid evaluations in 2007 will be used to identify 3-5 specific hybrids for advanced testing. Parental lines for selected hybrids will be grown in the TAMU winter nursery near Guayanilla, Puerto Rico and bulk quantities of hybrid seed will be produced. Experimental hybrid seed will be distributed amongst the agronomists and they will plant these hybrids (along with checks appropriate for their region) in replicated tests in locations throughout the region.

These trials will also be used to develop agronomic “best management practices” for the three production regions. At each location, specific agronomic and/or engineering objectives will be addressed based on the interest of each co-PI. In South Texas, emphasis will be placed on multiple harvests, on the High Plains, population density will be studied and in the Great Plains, nitrogen utilization will be studied. Juice extraction studies will be conducted in Stillwater while ethanol conversion will be completed in Manhattan.

From this project the researchers will release inbred lines necessary to produce a sweet sorghum hybrid specifically for bioenergy production. These lines will be distributed based on licensing agreements negotiated by the Office of Technology Commercialization at Texas A&M University. The expectation is that these materials will be available for distribution in 2010 and possibly if needed as early as 2009. At the time of distribution, and on a regional basis, extension bulletins and production management guides will be made available on hybrid adaptation, expected sugar yield, and optimum seeding rate under both dryland and irrigated conditions.


6. Researchers at Texas A&M University, Tarleton State University and Angelo State University will be evaluating the nutritional and feeding value of ethanol byproducts for animal production.

Objectives of this project are to determine how animal performance, metabolism, digestibility, and wool and carcass characteristics of growing lambs and kids are affected by replacing protein (cottonseed meal) and energy (milo) feeds with Distillers' Dried Grains (DDG). Trials 1 and 2 will evaluate use of DDG on lamb and kid performance and wool and carcass characteristics. Trials 3 and 4 will evaluate the use of DDG on feed digestibility and nutrient metabolism in small ruminants.


7. Scientists at OSU, KSU, the University of Arkansas and Texas A&M University will be breeding and testing new switchgrass cultivars for increased biomass production in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Kansas.

The aim is to conduct a breeding program to develop switchgrass cultivars with increased biomass yield and wide adaptation. Secondly, the purpose is to establish a testing network in the south-central United States.

The deliverables from the project will include: 1. four breeding populations advanced from generation C2 to C3, and from C0 to C1; 2. the development of 6 to 8 new synthetics; 3. data on stand density and biomass yield of new synthetics and major commercial cultivars in the establishment year at five locations in 2010; 4. data on inbreeding and development of hybrid cultivars in 2010.


A series of 'seed grants' was made available for the following projects:

1. OSU scientists will be optimizing a new downdraft gasification system for synthesis gas production from low-bulk density biomass materials.

A unique downdraft gasifier design has been evolved at OSU to generate synthesis gas (syngas) consisting of CO, H2 and methane as the major combustible elements. The project aims at optimizing the new downdraft system for selected low bulk density biomass materials to generate synthesis gas high in carbon monoxide and hydrogen concentrations and low in tar and particulate contents, and to demonstrate its readiness for commercial deployment for distributed energy applications in Oklahoma and South Central region.

The specific objectives are as follows: 1. to fabricate a unique downdraft gasifier system capable of gasifying low bulk density biomass materials and develop a test set-up; 2. to test and evaluate the gasifier system developed under the objective 1 for chopped switchgrass, wheat straw, wood shavings, saw dust, and corn fermentation byproducts to generate synthesis gas high in carbon monoxide and hydrogen concentrations and low in tar and particulate contents and incorporate modifications as needed; 3. to evaluate mass and energy balance and synthesis gas generation cost details for each of the biomass material tested under the objective 2; and 4. demonstrate the developed gasifier technology to selected industries of Oklahoma and South Central region.


2. KSU researchers will be studying saline extractive distillation for ethanol separation.

The objective is to reduce capital and operating costs (energy demand) of the current multi stage separation process for recovery of fuel-grade ethanol from fermentation broth. A single distillation unit will suffice to obtain fuel-grade ethanol. The principle is the addition of salt to the distillation column and the subsequent recovery and recycle of the salt by electrodialysis. The recycling of salt to the distillation column by electrodialysis is the enabling process for saline extractive distillation.


3. Scientists at the University of Arkansas will examine nanoparticle systems for delivery of biological antimicrobial compounds to limit microbial contamination in industrial yeast fermentation.

Their long term goal is to find feasible antimicrobial intervention method(s) that can be routinely integrated with economical delivery systems in large scale industrial yeast fermentation systems. Specific objectives are: 1) Evaluate B. bifidum NCFB 1454 fermented corn grain extract against potential contaminants of yeast fermentation in a model system and screen for effective bacteriocins; 2) Evaluate the effective concentrations of polylysine or B. bifidum NCFB 1454 fermented corn grain extract bacteriocins or their combinations against potential contaminants in yeast fermentation system. 3) Synthesize and characterize chitosan nanoparticles containing polylysine peptide dispersed in organic acids and evaluate the effectiveness of the antimicrobial nanoparticles containing poly-lysine peptide incorporated organic acid spray treatment in yeast fermentation system.

Microbial contamination is the one of the major problems in the industrial yeast fermentation creating great economic losses to the fermentation industries during processing and requiring control in the initial processing steps of yeast fermentation. Failure to do so ensure an eventual shutdown of the fermenter and loss of production time until the system can be purged of contaminants and re-inoculated with the yeast strains normally used for the fermentation process. Therefore it becomes critical to develop broad spectrum antimicrobial additives to prevent potential bacterial contamination “blooms” prior to irreversible contamination and shut down of the fermenter.

The main objective of the proposed research will be to evaluate economically feasible biological compounds for their broad spectrum capability to limit and/or inhibit microbial contaminants in yeast fermentations. Because yeast fermentations are used for the production of the majority of ethanol, this study will be an important step to increase the quality of the fermentation process and therefore provide the Arkansas biofuel industry with better interventions for maintaining the quality of the fermentation process. Finally, the ethanol fermentation industry is one of the fastest growing industries with great potential economic benefit in Arkansas for development of biofuel from agricultural byproducts.

Successful completion of this project should provide a useful intervention strategy utilizing polymer-nano-composite system incorporating chitosan nanoparticles containing polylysine peptide dispersed in fermented extract biologicals to effectively control contaminants in yeast fermentation systems.


4. Another group of KSU researchers will be studying advanced biodiesel feedstock developments for the southern Great Plains.

The aims: 1. to evaluate germplasm with high monounsaturated fat content (oleic acid), reduced levels of polyunsaturated fat (linolenic and linoleic acid), and low amounts of saturated fatty acids for general adaptability to the southern Great Plains. 2. to develop adapted winter canola cultivars with superior oil quality for production of a high quality feedstock to produce biodiesel.

Expected Outcomes include specialty canola cultivars that will be the primary deliverable from this research project. Specialty canola cultivars will possess high oleic acid content in addition to low-linoleic, low-linolenic acid content, and lower levels of saturated fatty acids. High-oleic cultivars are defined as having approximately 75% oleic acid, with reduced amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acid. Specialty canola cultivars will be available approximately 8 to 10 years following creation of breeding populations. A reputable biofuel industry will likely establish in the region over this same time period. Oil produced from these specialty cultivars will provide a high quality feedstock with improved stability for the production of biodiesel. Superior oil quality will strengthen the value-added farm economy of the southern Great Plains, providing farmers an incentive to grow the cultivars.


5. Texas A&M researchers will develop a biotechnology platform for biomass bioconversion based on the microorganism Vibrio furnissii.

The main objective of this research is to further the researchers' long-term aim of developing an efficient and economical platform for the direct bioconversion of biomass into kerosene and other long-chain alkanes. To achieve this, they propose to pursue the following objectives: 1. To generate V. furnissii strains with altered hydrocarbon biosynthesis capacities. 2. To characterize the hydrocarbon profiles of V. furnissii strains with altered hydrocarbon-producing capacities. 3. To characterize the genetic lesions in V. furnissii strains harboring altered hydrocarbon biosynthesis and accumulation phenotypes.


6. KSU scientists also will be examining the viability of sorghum stover and brown midrib forage sorghum for ethanol production.

The goal of this proposed research is to develop comprehensive understanding and utilization of regular sorghum stover and bmr sorghum (sorghum biomass) for ethanol production. The specific objectives are: 1. to characterize the physical properties and chemical composition of selected sorghum biomass; 2. to develop chemical/physical pretreatment technologies to increase the fermentable sugars yields from sorghum biomass; 3. to increase the ethanol yields by identifying and reducing the effects of potential inhibitors formed during pretreatment of sorghum biomass; and 4. to investigate energy inputs and outputs associated with bioprocessing sorghum biomass.

High yield regular sorghum lines and bmr sorghum will be selected, grown under selected environment conditions. Plant samples will be collected at various stages of crop development and at maturity from each genotype. All samples will be analyzed for moisture content, cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, structural protein, acid insoluble residue content, etc. Crystallinity, morphology, and surface area accessible for cellulase binding will be analyzed using XRD, SEM, and confocal laser scanning microscopy. The chemical and physical properties will be linked to the fermentable sugars and ethanol yields. Optimized pretreatment and enzymatic hydrolysis procedures will be developed to increase fermentable sugars yield from sorghum biomass. The compounds derived from the pretreatment and hydrolysis of cellulosic biomass will be determined by HPLC and LC-MS/MS methods. Economic analysis on energy efficiency associated with bioprocessing sorghum biomass will be conducted.

The main results will be the finding of the impacts of chemical composition, microstructure, physical properties, pretreatment methods, and degradation products on bioprocessing of sorghum biomass for ethanol production. This will lead toward a study of the relationship among the “composition-structure-pretreatment-bioconversion sequence”. The chemical composition and physical properties will be correlated to genotype and production environment. Input/output flows and estimated processing cost will be used to conduct economic analysis. Outcomes will be communicated to the processing industry for use in implementation. The outcomes will include baselines of chemical composition of regular sorghum stover and bmr forage sorghum, and optimized pretreatment and enzymatic hydrolysis procedures for high sugar yields. At least one peer reviewed publications is expected from this research.


7. LSU scientists will be developing advanced technologies for biodiesel production.

The objectives of the proposed research are to use batch and continuous microwave technology to extract oil from traditional (soybeans) and alternative (rice bran, Chinese tallow tree seeds) feedstocks, to convert these oils into biodiesel, and to estimate the feasibility and economic viability of the process.

To achieve these objectives, the feedstock will be subjected to: pre-processing, oil extraction, separation, trans-esterification, and separation of trans-esterification products (biodiesel and glycerol). The results will be assessed using universally accepted analytical methods.

The outcomes of the proposed research project will (1) further develop and strengthen the bioenergy-targeted bioprocessing programs at LSU AgCenter; (2) develop new technologies for post-harvest processing of biodiesel feedstock, and (3) accelerate the technology transfer process from research to commercialization using existing agreements with industry partners.


8. Texas A&M University researchers will be studying the use of animal waste in coal-fired plants.

The specific goal of the proposed research is to demonstrate the use of CB as a co-fired fuel in Low NOx burners and demonstrate the new technology in reducing NOx and Hg. The proposed work falls into four broad objectives/tasks: 1. CB fuel and coal characteristics; 2. facility and experiments; 3. modeling, and 4. economics.

The tasks are selected so as to supplement the ongoing U.S. Department of Energy project in developing new technology and providing an additional market for CB as fuel in coal fired plants.


9. KSU researchers will research ways to break the cost barrier for bio-ethanol.

The long-term goal of the proposed work is to develop reactive adsorption technology for the efficient technical-scale recovery of ethanol from fermentation broths. Unlike conventional ethanol recovery systems, where separation of ethanol from water relies upon differences in the boiling points of the components, in the proposed system, separation will be achieved by selectively reacting ethanol with a chemical moiety tethered to the surface of a solid support and subsequently reversing the reaction to recover purified product.

This revolutionary approach for recovering ethanol from fermentation broth has the potential for reducing production costs by 40%. Literature data demonstrates that moieties exist which will selectively and reversibly react with ethanol to form stable products. An increase in temperature is all that is needed to reverse the reaction. The challenge is to identify a reactive moiety that has very high specificity for ethanol in the presence of water and for which the moiety-ethanol product can be converted back into the individual molecules with only moderate energy input. Project objectives are to: 1. evaluate the feasibility of recovering ethanol from fermentation broth via solid-phase reactive adsorption. 2. evaluate the capacity of the adsorbent to be regenerated and reused. 3. prepare a preliminary process design and determine energy requirements for the proposed system.


10. Finally, another KSU team will develop a multifunctional frequency-response permittivity sensor for biodiesel concentration measurement and impurity detection.

The aims of this project are: 1. develop a portable sensor for quick measurement of blend ratio and impurity concentrations for biodiesel; 2. to develop an embedded blend-ratio sensor to assist fuel-injection adjustment, and 3. to prove the accuracy, reliability, and durability of the sensors through a well-designed experiment.


All filed proposals were reviewed for technical merit and regional impact by experts representing a wide variety of career disciplines. Many more proposals were worthy of funding, according to Clarence Watson, director of the Sun Grant Initiative's. "We�re optimistic that the Sun Grant Initiative will continue to grow, enabling us to fund additional projects in the coming years," Watson added.

References:
Oklahoma State University: Sun Grant Initiative, South Central Region homepage.

South Central Region Sun Grant Initiative 2007 Awards: DOT Biobased Transportation Research Program. Regional Competitive Grants [*.doc] - August 2007.

Eurekalert: Sun Grant initiates new funding for biobased energy - August 13, 2007.


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Brazil initiates WTO case against U.S. ethanol and farm subsidies

Earlier this year, the United States and Brazil pledged to collaborate on the development of biofuels technologies and markets in the Americas. Even though the agreement was hailed by Brazil as a recognition of its expertise and leadership in the sector, the country could not convince the U.S. to give up its trade barriers imposed on imported ethanol or its large farm and biofuel subsidies. To challenge this state of affairs, Brazil has now initiated [*Portuguese] a case against the U.S. at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the global body that settles trade related disputes. The move could threaten the U.S. biofuel industry.

In Brazil, ethanol is produced in a highly efficient, sustainable and cost-effective manner, making the biofuel the most competitive available and considerably less costly than gasoline. Compared to ethanol made from corn in the U.S., Brazil's sugarcane ethanol is around 3 times less costly and has an energy balance 8 to 10 times stronger. Not surprisingly, the country is trying to create a global market for its green product and wants to export to the largest consumers. However, the U.S. protects its own ethanol producers by a steep $0.54 per gallon tariff, blocking direct imports. Moreover, American farmers and biofuel manufacturers receive lavish subsidies, estimated to cost U.S. tax payers as much as $5.1 billion in 2006 for ethanol alone (earlier post).

Brazil has now launched a case against the U.S. at the WTO. Trade negotiators of both countries will soon meet to discuss the issue of agricultural subsidies, in particular those offered to American maize farmers.

The move comes at a time when the U.S. presidential elections come closer and more and more candidates are speaking out in favor of locally produced ethanol. According to the Estado de S.Paulo [*Portuguese], these politicians are heavily influenced by the powerful corn and agribusiness lobbies, who want to shield themselves from much more competitive biofuels produced in the Global South. By promising ever higher subsidies, candidates hope to gain support from these lobbies.

The strategy of the Brazilian government is to focus on all American farm subsidies, which stretch from the cotton, sugar and soy sector to corn and many other commodities. These subsidies keep millions of farmers in the developing world in poverty. Brazil leads the G20, a group of developing and transition economies who work towards changing this state of affairs. And even though the group has achieved several successes, the crucial Doha Round of trade negotiations, aimed specifically at helping developing countries, still faces a deadlock, mainly over agricultural subsidies.

However, the case against U.S. farm subsidies, with a focus on biofuels, is receiving more and more support:
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Besides the G20, Canada, potentially a large biodiesel producer, has joined Brazil as has India, the world's second largest sugar producer.

In a similar development, the governments of Sweden and the Netherlands launched a formal request for a study to be performed by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to assess the damages brought about by farm subsidies and biofuel trade barriers both in the U.S. and the EU (earlier post). Sweden, one of Europe's leading green nations, wants all barriers for biofuels removed, so that a global trade can emerge that allows countries in the South to make use of their comparative advantages (more here).

Experts agree that biofuels offer one of the most important opportunities for the developing world to lift millions of farmers out of poverty. But for this to succeed, thorough trade reform is needed. Most recently, the chief of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, spoke out about the issue in no uncertain terms (previous post).

Thanks Marcelo Acuna of EthanolBrasil.

References:
Agencia Estado: Brasil ataca etanol dos EUA na OMC - August 14, 2007.

Estado de Sao Paulo: Etanol vira bandeira eleitoral nos Estados Unidos - August 14, 2007.

Biopact: FAO chief calls for a 'Biopact' between the North and the South - August 15, 2007

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

Biopact: Sweden calls for international biofuels trade - August 11, 2007

Biopact: Subsidies for uncompetitive U.S. biofuels cost taxpayers billions - report - October 26, 2006


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Engineers develop compact biomass powered CHP plant based on Stirling engines

A consortium of European research organisations has achieved an engineering breakthrough by developing a compact, highly efficient combined heat-and-power (CHP) plant based on stirling engines and fueled by biomass. Until now there were no biomass CHP technologies available in the power range below 100 kWel. The engineers succeeded in optimizing and scaling down the technology to a power range of 35 kWel and a 70 kWel.

The small scale plants are hyper-efficient with an overall system efficiency ranging between 85 and 93%. Because the CHP units are so compact, they can replace existing but far less efficient traditional hot-water boilers. Alternatively they can operate in decentralised and autonomous energy systems in off-grid places, particularly in the developing world. Given that it is fueled by renewable and carbon-neutral solid biomass, the system is one of the cleanest energy concepts available.

The technology was developed within the scope of a research, development and demonstration cooperation project jointly carried out by the Technical University of Denmark, Bios Bioenergiesysteme, Mawera Holzfeuerungsanlagen and the Austrian Bioenergy Centre. Two pilot plants have been tested extensively with promising results: the smallest of the two pilot plants, the 35 kWel unit (image, click to enlarge), was tested for more than 10,000 hours, whereas the 70 kWel system has been operated for approximately 3,000 hours.

The following table shows relevant technical data and efficiencies of the CHP technology based on the 35 kWel- and the 70 kWel-Stirling engines:

The technology should become available on the market over the next few years.

The small-scale CHP unit works on the basis of an advanced furnace, equipped with underfeed stoker technology where the biofuel is burned. In the combustion chamber the flue gas reaches temperatures of approximately 1,300 °C. Heat is then transferred to the Stirling hot heat exchanger and the temperature of the flue gas is reduced to about 800 °C at a heat exchanger outlet. Subsequently, the flue gas passes through an air preheater and an economiser mounted downstream the hot heat exchanger (schematic, click to enlarge).

Integrating, scaling and optimising the system in such a way that it can be fueled by biomass, a fuel with particular properties, presented many challenges and required several innovations:
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An efficient engine
The core of the system is based on the Stirling engine. Such engines are based on a closed cycle, where the working gas is alternately compressed in a cold cylinder volume and expanded in a hot cylinder volume. The advantage of the Stirling engine in comparison to internal combustion engines is that the heat is not supplied to the cycle by combustion of the fuel inside the cylinder, but transferred from the outside through a heat exchanger in the same way as in a steam boiler. Consequently, the combustion system for a Stirling engine can be based on proven furnace technology, thus reducing combustion related problems.

The heat input from fuel combustion is transferred to the working gas through a hot heat exchanger at high temperatures. The heat that is not converted into work on the shaft is rejected to the cooling water in a cold heat exchanger.

Challenges
The Stirling engine developed at the Technical University of Denmark uses Helium as working gas and is designed as a hermetically sealed unit. The use of Helium is very efficient in the context of the electric efficiency of the engine, but the researchers found that the utilisation of this low molecular weight gas made it difficult to design a piston rod seal, which keeps the working gas inside the cylinder and prevents the lubrication oil from entering the cylinder.

Many solutions have been tested, but it is still a delicate component in the engine. An attractive option was to bypass the problem by designing the engine as a hermetically sealed unit with the generator incorporated in the pressurised crankcase, just like the electric motor in a hermetically sealed compressor for refrigeration. This way, only static seals are necessary and the only connections from the inside to the outside of the hermetically sealed crankcase are the cable connections between the generator and the grid.

The challenges presented by the utilization of biomass fuels in connection with a Stirling engine were concentrated on transferring the heat from the combustion of the fuel into the working gas. The temperature must be high in order to obtain an acceptable specific power output and efficiency, and the heat exchanger must be designed so that problems with fouling are minimised.

Because of the high temperatures in the combustion chamber and the risk of fouling, it is not possible to utilise a Stirling engine designed for natural gas, as narrow passages in the Stirling heat exchanger are blocked after less than an hour of operation with biomass fuels. The risk of fouling in biomass combustion processes is mainly due to aerosol formation and condensation of ash vapours when the flue gas gets cooled. Bios Bioenergiesysteme GmbH developed a programme calculating the heat transfer from the flue gas to the internal working gas. Based on this development comprehensive design studies were performed and the performance of the Stirling heat exchanger was improved and optimised.


The image above (click to enlarge) shows an energy flow sheet of the CHP plant based on a 35 kWel Stirling engine. The electric plant efficiency amounts to approximately 12% and the overall plant efficiency to about 85 to 92%. The thermal heat output is normally in the range of around 230 kW and the fuel capacity (based on net calorific value) amounts to 300 kW.

Innovations
Furthermore, the Bios Bioenergiesysteme developed and designed an automatic cleaning system for the Stirling heat exchanger which was subsequently optimised during plant operation. The system comprises a pressurised air tank and air nozzles at each heat exchanger panel. The nozzles are equipped with magnetic valves. The valves are opened at regular intervals (only one valve at a time, all other valves remain closed) and the air is blown into the heat exchanger sector and cleans the tubes from ash deposits. The ash is then entrained with the flue gas and subsequently collected in the fly-ash precipitators.

In order to obtain a high overall electric efficiency of the CHP plant, the temperature in the hot heat exchanger and consequently the temperature of the flue gas should be as high as possible. Therefore, it is necessary to preheat the combustion air with the flue gas leaving the hot heat exchanger by means of an air preheater. Typically the temperature of the combustion air is raised to 500 °C – 600 °C, resulting in very high temperatures in the combustion chamber. This can cause ash slagging and fouling problems in biomass combustion systems and in the hot heat exchanger.

Consequently, the design of the furnace and its adaptation to the special requirements of a CHP plant with a 35 kWel Stirling engine was an important and difficult task. The plant should operate at a high temperature level to gain a high electric efficiency from the Stirling engine but temperature peeks in the furnace should be impeded in order to reduce ash slagging and fouling. The plant is designed for temperature levels in the furnace of about 1,300 °C (the typical flue gas temperatures in conventional biomass furnaces are in the range of approx. 1,000 °C).


An appropriate combustion system was developed and optimised using CFD simulations which have been performed by Bios Bioenergiesysteme. The results achieved showed that it is a very important task to optimise the design of the furnace geometry, of the secondary air nozzles and the nozzles for flue gas recirculation in order to reduce temperature peaks in the furnace as well as CO emissions. In addition, the CFD simulations performed improved an equal distribution of the flue gas flow into the different sections of the hot gas heat exchanger and thus ensured an equal heat transfer to the cylinders of the Stirling engines.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge) shows the geometry of the furnace with conventional nozzle design and placement. The secondary air nozzles are placed at the inlet of the secondary combustion chamber. The results of the CFD simulations performed for this geometry show that the flue gas burn out in the secondary combustion chamber is not efficient (see Figure 4). The CO emissions at outlet according to CFD simulations are about 100 mg/Nm3 (dry flue gas, 13 vol% O2).

Figure 3 shows a furnace geometry with optimised nozzle design and placement. The secondary air nozzles are arranged horizontally in the transition zone between primary and secondary combustion chamber. With this configuration the combustion air is efficiently mixed with the flue gas and a swirl flow is established in the secondary combustion chamber. Consequently, the resulting CO emissions are low. Figure 5 shows the contours of CO in mg/Nm3 calculated for the geometry with optimised air nozzles. For the optimised geometry, CFD simulations predict CO emission of approx. 15 mg/Nm3 (dry flue gas, 13 vol% O2). The results demonstrate that an efficient turbulent flow enhances the combustion process and reduces CO emissions, which stresses the relevance of an optimisation of the combustion system supported by CFD analyses.


The image above (click to enlarge) shows the 35 kWel pilot plant. The furnace of the CHP plant is equipped with underfeed stoker technology. The Stirling engine is mounted in a horizontal position downstream of the secondary combustion chamber for convenient maintenance. The air pre-heater and the economiser are placed on top of the furnace in order to achieve a compact design of the plant. To remove fly ash particles from the hot gas heat exchanger, a pneumatic and fully automatic cleaning system was developed and installed.

References:
Friedrich Biedermann, Henrik Carlsen, Martin Schöch, Ingwald Obernberger, "Operating experiences with a small-scale CHP pilot plant based on a 35kWel hermetic four cylinder stirling engine for biomass fuels" [*.pdf].

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Mobile pyrolysis plant converts poultry litter into bio-oil

A team of researchers from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech are developing transportable pyrolysis units that will convert poultry litter into bio-oil, providing an economical disposal system while reducing environmental effects and biosecurity issues.

This is yet another example how pyrolysis plants can be scaled down and brought to the source of the biomass, instead of hauling the biomass to the plant. The logic behind designing transportable plants is that biomass is bulky and can better be transformed into a fuel with a high energy density at the source. This improves the logistics of biofuel production (earlier post and here).

The group of Virginia Tech scientists, led by Foster Agblevor, associate professor of biological systems engineering, will present their research during the 234th American Chemical Society National Meeting in Boston on August 19-23. Agblevor will present the paper “Thermochemical conversion: A dual tool for bio-oil production and a solution to environmental waste disposal” as part of the session “Characterization of Fossil and Biofuels: Challenges and Progress.”

Agblevor is working with poultry growers to test technology that would convert poultry litter to three value-added byproducts – 'pyrodiesel' (bio-oil), producer gas, and fertilizer. The pyrolysis unit heats the biomass until it vaporizes. The vapor is then condensed to produce the bio-oil, and a slow release fertilizer is recovered from the reactor. The gas can then be used to operate the pyrolysis unit, making it a self-sufficient system.
The self-contained transportable pyrolsis unit will allow poultry producers to process the litter on site rather than having to haul the litter to a separate location. In addition, the thermochemical process destroys the microorganisms reducing the likelihood of the transmission of disease to other locations. - Foster Agblevor, associate professor of biological systems engineering, Virginia Tech
More than 5.6 million tons of poultry litter are produced each year in the United States. The litter consists of a mixture of bedding, manure, feathers, and spilled feed. According to Agblevor, current disposal methods, such as land application and feeding to cattle, are under pressure because of pollution of water resources due to leaching and runoff and concern about mad cow disease contamination in the food chain. There are also concerns that poultry litter can harbor such diseases as avian influenza. While avian influenza is not harmful to humans, people can spread it on their shoes, with their vehicles, or through movement of litter.

Poultry litter from broiler chickens and turkeys and bedding materials (wood shavings or peanut hulls) were converted into bio-oils in a fast pyrolysis fluidized bed reactor.

According to Agblevor, bio-oil yields ranged from 30 to 50 percent by weight, depending on the age and the bedding content of the litter. Bedding material that was mostly hardwood shavings yielded bio-oil as high as 62 percent by weight:
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The higher heating value of the poultry litter bio-oil ranged from 26 to 29 mega joules per kilogram while bio-oil from bedding material was only 24 mega joules per kilogram. The bio-oils had relatively high nitrogen content ranging from 4 percent to 7 percent by weight, very low sulfur content, below 1 percent by weight, and were very viscous.

The char yield ranged from 30 percent to 50 percent by weight, depending on the source, age, and composition of the poultry litter. The char also had a high ash content, ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent by weight, depending on the age and source of litter:

“The type of poultry litter used will affect the amount and quality of the bio-oil produced and ultimately will impact the producer’s profitability,” Agblevor said. “Finding the right set of conditions for the poultry litter is key to the adaptation of this technology.”

This research is part of a concentrated effort by Virginia Tech researchers, Virginia Cooperative Extension specialists and agents, conservation organizations, state agencies, and private industry to determine the most effective means to support the agricultural community and manage the excess nutrients in the Shenandoah Valley. The research is being funded by a $1 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Chesapeake Bay Targeted Watershed Program.

References:
Foster A. Agblevor, Sedat Beis1, Seung-Soo Kim, Ryan Tarrant and Ofei Mante, "Thermochemical conversion: A dual tool for bio-oil production and a solution to environmental waste disposal" - FUEL 9, Characterization of Fossil and BioFuels: Challenges and Progress, Division of Fuel Chemistry - 234th ACS National Meeting, Boston, MA, August 19-23, 2007



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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Terra preta and the future of energy: the Secret of El Dorado

There is rapidly growing interest in the development of carbon-negative bioenergy, seen by scientists as one of the most feasible strategies to mitigate climate change and strengthen energy security on a global scale. Two broad systems are being researched: a high-tech concept that involves storing carbon dioxide from biofuels in geological sites via carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies (earlier post). The other, low-tech, is based on the ancient technique of storing charcoal or biochar into soils. This practise, known as terra preta or Amazonian dark earth, could revolutionize energy agriculture.

When biochar is added to soils, they become impressively fertile because they prevent nutrients from getting washed away by rain and erosion. Archaeologists who discovered these black soils in Amazonia are now trying to replicate the technique; soil scientists and bioenergy companies are doing the same. But some of the mystery behind these soils remains.
In an excellent documentary titled 'The Secret of El Dorado', the BBC's science program Horizon sketches the amazing story of how this ancient agricultural technique may help fuel the future. The film shows how a Spanish conquistador's 16th century tale of an 'El Dorado' hidden deep in the heart of the Amazon might have been correct after all. Researchers demonstrate that the rainforest was indeed once populated by a large civilization counting millions of people who actively transformed vast tracts of its landscape. But their real treasure wasn't gold, it was dark earth, which allowed them to flourish. The findings challenge the idea that the rainforest is a 'pristine', 'undisturbed' ecosystem - that's basically a eurocentric, romantic myth (previous post). The scientists instead found that as much as 10 percent of the entire Amazon basin is covered in man-made terra preta, a huge area.

The documentary follows archaeologists, anthropologists, historians and agronomists into the jungle where they show how exactly the Amazonian black soil worked and continues to do so to this very day. In the final part of the movie, a replication of the century-old technique shows that a combination of biochar and fertilizer boosts crop yields by an incredible 880 percent...
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Meanwhile, scientists and biofuel producers from various parts of the world are testing the concept in carbon-negative bioenergy systems. Dynamotive, which develops next-generation biofuels based on pyrolysis, announced it is testing terra preta in the U.S. Midwest (previous post); a set of trials from China shows the versatility of biochar, whereas agronomists in Australia already found impressive yield increases of energy crops grown in the enhanced soils (here).

References:
BBC Horizon: 'The Secret of El Dorado' - part two, three, four and part five, which shows recent trials.

In-depth info on terra preta can be found at this dedicated bioenergy list.

Biopact: Biopact to chair Sparks & Flames conference panel on carbon-negative biofuels - August 08, 2007

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Survey: Americans strongly interested in more efficient cars and biofuels

The Automotive X Prize, an independent, technology-neutral competition designed to inspire a new generation of viable, super-efficient vehicles, recently presented results of a survey [*.pdf] showing Americans' enthusiasm for efficiency and alternative energy.

U.S. citizens see the development of 100 mile-per-gallon (2.35liter/100km) cars as one of the most powerful ideas for combating global warming. When asked to choose among six options to address climate change, 22 percent of all Americans surveyed chose the development of such an efficient vehicle. Developing 100 mpg cars is also one of the two strongest ideas, of seven tested, for reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and gas; 18 percent select it as one of their top two ideas for achieving this goal, with 21 percent selecting "requiring 25 percent of car fuel to come from renewable energy sources like ethanol", seen as the most powerful option.
It is clear to most Americans that the need to conserve energy and to find alternative means to power our automobiles is important to national security, as well as to their pocketbooks. The development of super-efficient vehicles is imperative if we are going to move beyond the incremental changes mandated by the federal government and those considered by Congress. - Donald J. Foley, executive director of the Automotive X PRIZE
Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of all Americans expressed a strong interest in purchasing 100 mpg vehicles and more than three quarters (76 percent) of those surveyed thought such a development would be extremely or very important to the United States.

The national survey conducted July 25-29, 2007, by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research also indicates an interesting gender divide on the issue, with men seeing the primary benefit of super-efficient autos as saving money on gas (38 percent) while women believe that the biggest benefit to buy a 100 MPG car is reducing pollution and global warming (35 percent).

Consumers remain wary of the costs of owning a highly fuel-efficient vehicle, naming cost by more than a 2-1 (43-19) margin over other reasons they would have doubts about buying such a car:
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Automakers understand the price-sensitivity of the buying public and developing a super-efficient vehicle will not exempt them from addressing this core, consumer concern. We stipulate in our draft competition guidelines that vehicles must meet strict safety, efficiency and carbon emissions as well as finish in the fastest times. To win in the marketplace, teams must obviously develop vehicles that consumers can afford and will find attractive to buy. - Donald J. Foley, executive director of the Automotive X PRIZE
The independent and technology-neutral Automotive X Prize competition is open to teams from around the world to prove they can design, build and bring to market 100 MPG or equivalent fuel economy vehicles that people want to buy. Industry experts will scrutinize team plans. Those that qualify will race their vehicles in rigorous cross-country stages that combine speed, distance, urban driving and overall performance. The winners will be the vehicles that exceed 100 MPG equivalent, fall under strict emissions caps and finish in the fastest time.

The Automotive X PRIZE will provide a multi-million dollar purse to the teams that can design, build and bring to market 100 MPG or equivalent fuel economy vehicles. The competition is expected to culminate in a Tour de France-style road race traveling through multiple cities while broadcast to a global audience in 2009 and 2010.

The Automotive X PRIZE announced earlier this month that 31 teams from 5 nations have already signaled their intent to compete for the multimillion dollar prize (previous post).

References:
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research: Americans See 100 mpg Cars as Biggest Fix for Global Warming, Have High Interest in Purchasing, but also Sensitivity about Costs [*.pdf] - August 1, 2007

Automotive X Prize: Americans See 100 MPG Cars as Biggest Fix for Global Warming -
August 7, 2007

Biopact: Automotive X Prize gathers steam: 30 teams ready to compete - August 01, 2007


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Efficient timber harvester delivers wood chips on the spot, improves biomass logistics

Biomass harvesting, logistics and transport are important factors in the total production cost of biofuels. Engineers are designing new integrated systems to increase the efficiency of these steps, such as mobile pellet plants that can be brought to farm fields, small-scale pyrolysis plants that can be located near biomass sources, or new combines that harvest and pretreat herbaceous crops for biogas production (previous post).

For solid biofuels used in biomass power plants under the form of chips or pellets, wood resources first need to be harvested from forests, which often present a challenging terrain. Once extracted, thinnings or trunks are transported to a central wood chipping facility where the biomass is shredded, ready to be transformed into solid, liquid or gaseous biofuels.

A new harvester developed in Finland specially for the emerging forest-based bioenergy sector, combines these steps in a highly efficient and environmentally friendly way.

The Valmet 801 Combi BioEnergy [*Finnish] developed by Komatsu Forest brings the wood chipper to the forest, instead of the forest to the chipper. Primarily intended for use in young-growth woodland, it is an ideal tool for thinning woodland to promote strong future forestry growth and producing high-quality woodchips for use in biopower plants.

The benefits of thinning young plantation woodland have gone largely unused in Finland, as they have elsewhere in the wold, largely for reasons of cost. The low yield of wood for each hectare generated by this type of thinning has generally seen timber companies and pulp and paper companies avoid it as largely unproductive.

With the rise in the interest in renewable, carbon-neutral fuels, this situation is changing rapidly. Young forests represent a major fuel resource capable of providing millions of cubic metres of wood a year in the Nordic region alone.

The obstacle to making use of this resource has, until now, been that the harvesting and chipping methods available have not been particularly well suited to this type of land. Moreover, existing processes aren't very energy-efficient: many different machines are needed, each with their own fuel consumption.

Chips on the spot
The Valmet 801 Combi BioEnergy eliminates these problems at a stroke, as it offers a ‘chips on the spot’ solution. While felling, the operator can grab a number of trunks at the same time and feed them into a chipper integrated at the front of the machine. The resulting chips are then blown into the onboard 27-m3 hopper, the contents of which can be emptied into a forward-hauled container in only three minutes for transport to a preset pick-up point at the roadside.

This efficient, integrated chain means that timber felled in the morning can already be generating heat and power at a power plant later the same day:
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Energy efficiency all the way
A number of forest energy contractors and forest-management companies are already using the Valmet 801 Combi BioEnergy, and the results have been even better than expected.

One machine and the asssociated support logistics can manage about 300 ha of young-growth woodland and generate the equivalent of more than 50 000 MWh of environment-friendly forest energy.

The Valmet 801 Combi BioEnergy system thins, chips, and transports a highly valuable energy resource using a little over one litre of fossil fuel for every megawatt hour of end-use energy.

This compares very favourably with the best that alternative systems can do, as they need nearly four times as much fuel to achieve the same performance.

References:
Komatsu Forest Oy: Valmet 801 Combi BioEnergy.

Dedicated website on 'biologistics', built around the machine.


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