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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.


    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.


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Friday, October 10, 2008

Researchers develop tool to assess the risk of desertification


Researchers from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) have designed a method based on dynamic simulation models to define the indicators for the risk of desertification of a particular region in the long term, thus forecasting whether or not the current land use situation is sustainable.

Using a general model of desertification, researchers from the Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenieros Agrónomos of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid managed by Javier Ibáñez have developed indicators that predict the future state of an area and hence the sustainability of current land use. This general desertification model is used as a virtual laboratory where it is possible to reproduce the different syndromes of desertification, such as overgrazing and overdrafting of aquifers.

Desertification has been described as one of the biggest environmental and socioeconomic problem faced by many countries all over the world. In arid regions, the cause of the problem is mainly the way the land is used. The definition that is most extended and that was approved by the United Nations in 1994 is that desertification is the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid, sub-humid and dry areas resulting from different factors such as climatic variations and human activities.

There are two ways to fight desertification. One of them consists in cancelling out the effects it causes, which is very expensive considering all the investments required to restore lost fertility to the soils. The other is to anticipate the problem, since during its initial stages it can still be managed and turned around. In this sense, the diverse existing methods seek to detect the early symptoms of degradation.

The traditional indicators, based on physical measurements such as plant density and erosion rates, are precise but have two serious inconveniences. Firstly, since they measure characteristics of desertification, they give information about an on going process without providing information about the long term result of such processes. The second drawback is that they often focus on very particular characteristics of the landscape, such as certain plant species, making these techniques hard to export to other territories.

The proposed tool aims to complete the information offered by the conventional indicators with simulations that would virtually reproduce the threatened environments, allowing for the development of specific indicators that would sound an alarm when critical thresholds representing long term desertification effects are reached:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In particular, the study carried out by the researchers from the UPM consists of the development of a set of generic equations that represent different desertification syndromes. The model, constructed by means of systems dynamics, links physical and socioeconomic processes. This implies that phenomenons like aquifer salinisation or soil degradation can be studied along with the benefits for the farmers and their opportunity costs.

The procedure is born with the goal of estimating the risk of desertification in any part of the world, including regions where field data is non existent and it is for this purpose that it has been designed. Up to now, it has been applied to the field of Dalías (Almería) and its system of coastal aquifers, the grazing grounds of Lagadas (Greece) or the oases at Morocco and Tunisia.

Currently this method is being used to study the erosion of the olive plantations in Andalusia and their impact of livestock in grazing lands in Senegal.

References:

Ibáñez, Javier; Martínez Valderrama, Jaime; Puigdefabregas, Juan, “Assessing desertification risk using system stability condition analysis”, Ecological Modelling 213 (2), 180-190, May 10, 2008, doi:10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2007.11.017




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Smithsonian's perspective on impact of global warming on biodiversity


Will climate change exceed life's ability to respond? "Biodiversity in a Warmer World", published in Science illustrates that cross-disciplinary research fostered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama clearly informs this urgent debate.

As an extremely diverse region of rainforest and coral reefs, the tropics may have the most to lose as a result of global warming. Some disagree, arguing that tropical organisms will be favored as their ranges expand into temperate areas. Few empirical studies provide specific answers to help us choose conservation and mitigation measures.

Science asked Jens Svenning, University of Aarhus, Denmark and Richard Condit of the Smithsonian's Global Earth Observatory Network to review two papers about species range change.

In a range analysis for plants and insects on a mountain slope in Costa Rica, Colwell et al. show that a 3.2˚ C increase in temperature threatens 53 percent of the area's species with lowland extinction and 51 percent with range shift gaps, meaning that they have nowhere else to go.

The other study they reviewed, by Moritz et al., follows historical range expansions and contractions for small mammals in Yosemite National Park in California, USA and shows that ranges may contract dangerously as they are pushed further and further up mountain slopes:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

To provide the proper perspective for this work Svenning, who held a postdoctoral fellowship with the Smithsonian's GEO network in 2000-2002 and Condit cite empirical work by colleagues at the Smithsonian and others.

In a 2001 Science article by STRI staff scientist Carlos Jaramillo et al., plant pollen diversity in rock cores from northern South America revealed that warming events in the tropics over 60 million years were not particularly detrimental, with the caveat that warming in fragmented landscapes or crossing a temperature threshold could cause severe extinctions in the future.

Extant species that evolved in warmer climates should retain the ability to tolerate warmer climates in the future, as argued in a 2001 issue of Science by Eldredge Bermingham, director of STRI and Christopher Dick, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

It is not clear which factors (temperature, moisture, competition with other species, habitat limitation) are the primary causes of tropical extinctions. Drought tolerance, however, definitely limits tropical plant distributions. This was reported in the May 2007 issue of Nature by Bettina Engelbrecht, research associate and lecturer at San Francisco State University, and colleagues.

Condit and Svenning also cite their own studies from the tropics and temperate areas where other drivers of extinction are at work. They call for more discoveries of the sort that often result when researchers are brought together in places like STRI's facilities in Panama, where camaraderie fuels critical ecological research within an intellectual context that encourages a deep time and wide world perspective.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, is a unit of the Smithsonian Institution. The Institute furthers the understanding of tropical nature and its importance to human welfare, trains students to conduct research in the tropics and promotes conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems.

Picture: How will a warmer world affect seasonal behavior such as the flowering of these Cuipo trees in Panama? Credit: Marcos Guerra, STRI

References:
Jens-Christian Svenning and Richard Condit, "Biodiversity in a Warmer World", Science 10 October 2008: Vol. 322. no. 5899, pp. 206 - 207, DOI: 10.1126/science.1164542




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Thursday, October 09, 2008

FAO: biofuels could help the poor, with right policy framework

Biofuel policies and subsidies should be urgently reviewed in order to preserve the goal of world food security, protect poor farmers, promote broad-based rural development and ensure environmental sustainability, FAO said today in a new edition of its annual flagship publication The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) 2008. In the document, the organisation points out that a 'biopact' of sorts could benefit the world's poor, 75% of who are farmers. But this would require serious policy and trade reform.
Biofuels present both opportunities and risks. The outcome would depend on the specific context of the country and the policies adopted. Current policies tend to favour producers in some developed countries over producers in most developing countries. The challenge is to reduce or manage the risks while sharing the opportunities more widely. - Jacques Diouf, FAO Director-General
Biofuel production based on agricultural commodities increased more than threefold from 2000 to 2007, and now covers nearly two percent of the world’s consumption of transport fuels. The growth is expected to continue, but the contribution of liquid biofuels (mostly ethanol and biodiesel) to transport energy, and even more so, to global energy use will remain limited.

Despite the limited importance of liquid biofuels in terms of global energy supply, the demand for agricultural feedstocks (sugar, maize, oilseeds) for liquid biofuels will continue to grow over the next decade and perhaps beyond, putting upward pressure on food prices.

Opportunities for the poor
If developing countries can reap the benefits of biofuel production, and if those benefits reach the poor, higher demand for biofuels could contribute to rural development.
Opportunities for developing countries to take advantage of biofuel demand would be greatly advanced by the removal of the agricultural and biofuel subsidies and trade barriers that create an artificial market and currently benefit producers in OECD countries at the expense of producers in developing countries. - Jacques Diouf
Other policy measures driving the rush to liquid biofuels, such as mandated blending of biofuels with fossil fuels, as well as tax incentives, have created an artificially rapid growth in biofuel production. These measures have high economic, social and environmental costs and should also be reviewed, according to the report.

Food security
Growing demand for biofuels and the resulting higher agricultural commodity prices offer important opportunities for some developing countries. Agriculture could become the growth engine for hunger reduction and poverty alleviation, the FAO says.

Production of biofuel feedstocks may create income and employment, if particularly poor small farmers receive support to expand their production and gain access to markets. Promoting smallholder participation in crop production, including for biofuel, requires investment in infrastructure, research, rural finance, market information and institutions and legal systems:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Among the risks, however, food security concerns loom large. High agricultural commodity prices are already having a negative impact on developing countries that are highly dependent on imports to meet their food requirements.

Particularly at risk are poor urban consumers and poor net food buyers in rural areas. Many of the world’s poor spend more than half of their incomes on food. “Decisions about biofuels should take into consideration the food security situation but also the availability of land and water,” Diouf said. “All efforts should aim at preserving the utmost goal of freeing humanity from the scourge of hunger,” he stressed.

Greenhouse gases
When looking at the environmental dimension, the balance is not always positive. “Expanded use and production of biofuels will not necessarily contribute as much to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as was previously assumed,” the report finds. While some biofuel feedstocks, such as sugar, can generate significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, this is not the case for many other feedstocks.

The largest impact of biofuels on greenhouse gas emissions is determined by land-use change. “Changes in land use – for example deforestation to meet growing demand for agricultural products – are a great threat to land quality, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions,” Diouf noted.

Sustainability criteria based on internationally agreed standards could help to improve the environmental footprint of biofuels, the report states, but they should not create new trade barriers for developing countries.

Second generation
The next generation of biofuels currently under development but not yet commercially available, using feedstocks such as wood, tall grasses, forestry and crop residues, could improve the fossil energy and greenhouse gas balance of biofuels.

“There seems to be a case for directing expenditures on biofuels more towards research and development, especially on second-generation technologies, which, if well designed and implemented, could hold more promise in terms of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions with less pressure on the natural resource base,” Diouf said.

References:
FAO: The State of Food and Agriculture: Biofuels: prospects, risks and opportunities - October 2008.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Barcelona Declaration 2008: Challenges and pathways to Earth sustainability

The Centre for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF), in the celebration of its 20th anniversary, organised a meeting whit a group of international experts to discuss the environmental future of the planet on 2 and 3 October. The work of both days is summarized in the Declaration of Barcelona 2008: Challenges and Pathways to Earth Sustainability, which you will find bellow. Targeted to governments and to business agents from all over the world, this document claims the immediate adoption of measures to mitigate the global change and a scientific and technological revolution to advance towards a coherent sustainable development.

Barcelona Declaration 2008:Challenges and Pathways to Earth Sustainability

The coming three decades will determine whether the population of the world comes into balance with the capacity of the biosphere to support it, or whether catastrophic changes in the environment brought on by climate change, losses of biodiversity, pollution of air and water, and overharvesting of natural resources will lead to the end of the improvement of wellbeing that has characterized the Modern Era.

Current indicators are alarming. Declining trends in environmental conditions either continue unchanged from previous decades or are accelerating beyond our worst projections. There is growing evidence that irreversible changes have already occurred or are imminent.

The deterioration of the global environment continues despite current international efforts, including adoption of the Millennium Development Goals and treaties to address climate change, biodiversity loss, and land degradation. Clearly, global action to reverse the negative trends is inadequate, but it is not too late to collectively create a viable future. The scale, urgency and severity of the problems means that no action is too small to matter, too large to contemplate, or too soon to begin.

Nine scientific experts on global change, who met in Barcelona under the auspices of the Center for Ecological and Forestry Research (CREAF), call for a Scientific and Technological Revolution to enable pathways of development consistent with global sustainability. The following actions are urged:
  • Immediate transition to non-carbon emitting energy systems.
  • Accounting for changes in natural capital in measures of economic performance.
  • Immediately begin adaptive measures to address global environmental change.
  • Empowering Developing Countries to play a larger role in global solutions.
Transition to non-carbon emitting energy systems must be immediate. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the most important human induced greenhouse gas, has already exceeded the levels that can be considered safe respect to the Earth's climate. This makes it necessary to take immediate steps towards weaning the global economy off carbon emitting energies. Leading developed countries are in the best technological, political, and economic position to begin this transition immediately while taking full economic advantage from early action. Concurrent technological transfer to developing countries will ensure a rapid global decline in emissions in light of the fact that developing countries account now for over half of all fossil fuel emissions:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Natural capital must be accounted for in measures of economic performance. The wealth of nations includes its material, human, and natural capital. In practice, material capital alone is used to indicate national economic status. As a result, even though the gross domestic product is rising, countries are often getting poorer. Taking account of changes in natural capital (the capacity of ecosystems to supply benefits to society in the future) in measures of economic performance will help countries to choose more sustainable and equitable development pathways. This will include the decoupling of deforestation in tropical regions from development. Wasting natural capital and destroying options for the future is irrational behavior. It occurs because the information on which we base our decisions is incomplete. Greater inclusion of the full cost to society, now and in the future, in the price of products and developments would bring the power of market forces into the service of sustainable solutions.

An effective response to adapt to global environmental change must begin now. We are already experiencing the effects of climate change and other environmental changes, and these impacts will increase rapidly in the future. Development planning at all scales, including global, national, regional and local, will need to change fundamentally to be less vulnerable to new and more variable climates and to cope with changes in the delivery of ecosystem services that underlie life support systems. Institutions, organizations, and governments need to adopt a more integrative and interlinked set of policies and governance structures to increase their resilience to the impacts of global change. Knowledge is available now to begin those actions but more trained practioners are needed to implement effective adaptive actions and share lessons learned. There is unrecognized and unused knowledge on adaptation to specific risks in low-income countries that needs to be mobilized. Research is needed to ensure that adaptation programs and activities are effective and efficient locally.

Developing Countries must be empowered to play a larger role in global solutions. Immediate investment in research infrastructure and human capacity is necessary to improve and scale-up research programs in crucial areas for development. This will create the needed national/regional capacity to deal with the global changes occurring today, strengthening both their capacity to mitigate but also to adapt to the changes, and critically come up with alternative solutions to development that are viable and appropriate local and globally. The improvement of research infrastructure in the developing countries will also deepen people's understanding of their environment and their responsibility towards sustainability, and allows for ethical choices on the development pathways to follow.

Signed by Harold Mooney (Stanford University., USA), Meinrat Andreae (Max Plank Institute, Germany), Carlos Nobre (INPE, Brazil), Robert Scholes (CSIR, South Africa), Lidia Brito (Mozambique), Kristie Ebi (USA), Ian Noble (World Bank), Josep Penuelas (CREAF-CSIC Catalonia, Spain), Josep Canadell (CSIRO, Australia)

References:

CREAF: Barcelona Declaration 2008: Challenges and Pathways to Earth Sustainability - Signatories' biographies - October 2008.



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United States announces 'National Biofuels Action Plan'


Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Ed Schafer and Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Samuel W. Bodman today released the National Biofuels Action Plan (NBAP), an interagency plan detailing the collaborative efforts of Federal agencies to accelerate the development of a sustainable biofuels industry.

The NBAP was developed in response to President Bush's plans to change the way America fuels its transportation fleets in the 2007 State of the Union Address. The "Twenty In Ten" goal calls for cutting U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years by investing in renewable and alternative fuel sources, increasing vehicle efficiency and developing alternative fuel vehicles.
The National Biofuels Action Plan is a strategic blueprint that shows us the way to meet the President's goal of meaningful biofuels production by the year 2022. And to do it in cost-effective, environmentally-responsible ways that utilize a science-based approach to ensure the next generation of biofuels that are made primarily from feedstocks outside the food supply that are produced sustainably. - Secretary Bodman

Federal leadership can provide the vision for research, industry and citizens to understand how the nation will become less dependent on foreign oil and create strong rural economies. This National Biofuels Action Plan supports the drive for biofuels growth to supply energy that is clean and affordable, and always renewable. - Secretary Schafer
The president's ambitious alternative fuels production target was later followed by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) and the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (FCEA) of 2008, which responded to the President's "Twenty in Ten" challenge with mandatory funding of more than $1 billion for such energy activities as loan guarantees for cellulosic ethanol projects as well as other renewable energy and energy-efficiency-related programs.

The NBAP was developed and is being implemented by the Biomass Research and Development (R&D) Board. Co-chaired by USDA and DOE officials, the Board was created to coordinate the activities of federal agencies involved in biomass research and development. Its membership represents the combined expertise and resources of senior decision makers from nearly a dozen executive branch agencies and the Administration:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

To enhance the impact of federal biofuels investments and enable attainment of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the NBAP outlines interagency actions and accelerated federally supported research efforts in seven areas including:
  • Sustainability
  • Feedstock Production
  • Feedstock Logistics
  • Conversion Science and Technology
  • Distribution Infrastructure
  • Blending
  • Environment, Health and Safety
Interagency working groups have been chartered with near term deadlines to deliver such key results as: the development of science-based sustainability criteria and indicators, 10- year R&D forecasts for research to develop cost-effective methods of producing cellulosic biofuels from non-food based feedstock, to advance these next generation biofuels to commercialization, and recommendations on infrastructure issues (see timeline, click to enlarge).

DOE has dedicated more than $1 billion to research, development, and demonstration of cellulosic biofuels technology through 2009. Additionally, since 2006, USDA has invested almost $600 million for the research, development and demonstration of new biofuels technology.

References:

Biomass Research and Development Board: National Biofuels Action Plan [*.pdf] - October 2008.

DOE: fact sheet for the NBAP [*.pdf] - October 2008.

USDA Energy Matrix Web site
.

Biomass Research and Development Board
.


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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Malawi's miracle: towards a Greener Revolution in Africa?

BBC science and environment reporter James Morgan has gone into the field to meet the families who are sowing the seeds of a uniquely African green revolution - one which is as kind to the environment as it is to the economy. Morgan visits Malawi, where this revolution has turned the country from a begging bowl into a major regional food exporter. Is Malawi's transformation a sign of things to come on the continent?

Morgan starts his account with a quote from Norman Borlaug, one of the founding fathers of the original Green Revolution - credited with wiping out starvation in Asia. Borlaug is not kind to 'environmentalists' and 'green campaigners' from Europe, amongst who it has become terribly unfashionable to promote the recipes the Green Revolution:
If [environmentalists] lived for just one month among the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertiliser and irrigation canals.
Borlaug is right: some environmentalists in the West live in a science-averse vacuum, out of touch with the needs of hundreds of millions of people in the Global South. In Europe, they promote problematic concepts like organic farming or 'local food', which are only conceivable in post-industrial societies that have a large number of very wealthy citizens. These ideas have a lot of inherent value, but it remains to be seen whether they can be introduced in the developing world, where producing food and energy are bare necessities, not luxuries. Campaigners in the West are often wary of biotechnology, which is, says Borlaug, a grave mistake.
Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy. Starvation is. - Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace laureate, father of the Green Revolution
But the question is whether there really is a need for oppositional, black-and-white thinking about the way forward for Africa's people, the vast majority of who are farmers.

James Morgan went to Malawi, where he wanted to discover whether Kofi Annan's words can become reality. Annan is the new chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) - a $200m, pan-African programme, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations.
Let us generate a uniquely African Green revolution. There is nothing more important than this. - Kofi Annan, chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa
The call for a Green Revolution in Africa is hard to argue. Over the last 50 years, African farmers have laboured in the heat, while countries like Mexico, India and the Philippines have undergone a radical transformation - applying novel fertilisers and pesticides to churn out bumper harvests of new high-yield varieties of wheat and rice.

Meanwhile, Africa has been cultivating greater and greater poverty statistics. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where per capita food production has steadily declined. One third of Africans are malnourished.

Soils are among the most depleted on Earth, writes Morgan. Farmers do not have access to productive seed varieties and those that do have neither the knowledge nor the tools to reap the harvest. Slash and burn still reigns:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

But it are these very challenges that has drawn the world's crop scientists and agro-economists to Malawi. They hope to pioneer novel farming systems that propel Africa towards a new era of food security.

The Greener Revolution
It has already been dubbed by members of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as "a greener revolution". "Greener" because it works with ecosystems, not against them. A revolution that is "pro-poor and pro-environment".

The talk around the conference tables is of "empowering" subsistence farmers to find their own, local solutions - farming techniques which are sustainable, affordable and tailored to local soils, markets and eating preferences.

Over the next week, Morgan will be taking a look at these projects first hand. He's wondering how women and men, who have been sowing the same maize seeds for generations, really feel about the new hybrid varieties of seeds which are more nutritious, but also more hungry for expensive pesticide and fertiliser.

'Against the grain'

Most of all, Morgan is curious to find out whether the "Malawian miracle" he has read about (and on which we have reported numerous times) is bona fide or illusory. Is the revolution underway, or a simple matter of better rainfall?

The facts are these: During the last decade, Malawi suffered six successive years of food shortage, culminating in 2005. One third of the population - 4.5million people - went hungry. Step forward two years, and Malawi is exporting more than one million metric tonnes of maize, its staple crop.

The government, against the advice of the IMF and the World Bank, has handed out vouchers to 1.5 million of the country's poorest farmers, enabling them to buy inputs - seeds, fertiliser and pesticides. Meanwhile, yields have mushroomed. Malawians are selling maize to Kenya and giving food aid to Zimbabwe.

References:
BBC: Seeking Africa's green revolution - October 6, 2008.

Biopact: Malawi's super harvest proves biofuel critics wrong - or, how to beat hunger and produce more oil than OPEC - December 04, 2007



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Scientists set out to discover new drugs and biofuels enzymes in tropical seas

The National Institutes of Health has awarded $4 million to a group of Philippine and American scientists led by Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) to aid in the discovery of new molecules and biofuels technology from marine mollusks for development in the Philippines.

The project will concentrate its research in the Philippine archipelago whose waters are inhabited by an estimated 10,000 marine mollusk species, or about a fifth of all the known species, and are regarded by marine biologists as the world's epicenter of marine biodiversity. Mollusks are among the most diverse of marine animals and include shelled creatures like snails, clams and slugs.

The wide-ranging Philippine Mollusk Symbiont International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups, or PMS-ICBG, project aims to provide new information to catalog and preserve these diverse mollusk species while providing scientific opportunities for the Philippines. U.S. scientists will work closely with colleagues from the University of the Philippines to uncover interactions between mollusks and their bacterial partners. The project is expected to yield leads to potential central nervous system, cancer and antimicrobial drugs as well as enzymes for cellulosic biofuels production.

The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy are also sponsors of the grant. The NSF supports basic research in marine science and biotechnology, and the DOE sees relevance to national energy needs because the shipworm, one species of mollusk the OHSU project will focus on, harbors bacteria that hold the promise of economically converting plant biomass into cellulosic ethanol, one of the holy grails in the quest for viable biofuels.

The five-year PMS-ICBG grant is administered by the Fogarty International Center, with additional support from the National Institute on Mental Health, both of the NIH. The lead investigator is Margo G. Haygood, Ph.D., professor of marine and biomolecular systems in the Environmental and Biomolecular Systems division of the Department of Science and Engineering, OHSU School of Medicine. The team includes scientists from the University of the Philippines, the University of Utah, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and Ocean Genome Legacy in Ipswich, Mass.

Looking at microbes in the ocean has enormous potential. It could contribute to the development of alternative fuels while at the same time opening a path for biomedical research in largely uncharted territory. - Edward Thompson, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Science and Engineering, OHSU School of Medicine.

ICBG grants are designed to guide the discovery and development of pharmaceutical and other useful agents from the earth's plants, animals and microorganisms in such a way that the communities and the countries where those biological resources are found can benefit and, at the same time, promote development of the scientific capacity and economic incentives for conservation and sustainable harvesting of those resources. An estimated 40 percent to 50 percent of currently used drugs originate in natural products:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Haygood, a scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for 18 years before coming to OHSU, has worked on the microbiology of symbioses – the interaction between different biological species – for three decades and played a major role proving that bryostatin, an anti-cancer agent, is made by bacterial symbionts living in a marine animal. She will manage a collaborative effort with some of the world's leading authorities on mollusks and marine drug discovery.

Malacology

The PMS-ICBG project has three research aims. The first is the methodical collection, identification and cataloging of mollusk species from the Philippines, and making this information freely available on the Internet. This effort will be led by Gary Rosenberg, Ph.D., curator and chairman of malacology (the study of mollusks) and an evolutionary biologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, who already has developed a biotic database documenting more than 25,000 species of Indo-Pacific marine mollusks.

Medical molecules

The second aim is discovery of biologically active molecules from bacteria associated with marine mollusks. One target is bacteria isolated from gastropod mollusks, or snails, particularly the highly venomous cone snails found in Philippine waters. Leading this part of the project will be Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., a biochemist at the University of Utah. Noted neuroscientist Baldomero M. Olivera, Ph.D., also of the University of Utah and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor known for his groundbreaking research on neurotoxins produced by cone snails, will participate as well. Although based in the United States, Olivera maintains a laboratory in the Philippines. He contends that at least 700 compounds with potential medical efficacy can be found in each cone snail species. Named the Harvard Foundation's 2007 Scientist of the Year, his work led to development of Ziconotide, a commercial drug considered more effective than morphine in blocking out extreme pain.

Shipworms and biofuels
Shipworms, the marine equivalent of termites and the scourge of wooden structures in estuarine and marine habitats worldwide, are the focus of the third aim. A relative of the clam, these animals host bacteria inside their gills that produce enzymes to help them digest wood and may prove useful for converting cellulosic biomass into biofuels. Cellulosic ethanol can be produced from cheap and abundant sources such as agricultural residue, fast-growing prairie grasses, lumber mill waste, and even municipal garbage.

Food grains, mainly corn, are currently the primary source of ethanol, and its production requires almost as much fossil fuel as it saves while squeezing the food supply. But researchers have yet to find an enzyme that can rapidly and efficiently break down cellulose that can be relied on for industrial production of cellulosic ethanol. Haygood will lead the shipworm component of the project with the support of Daniel Distel, Ph.D., a marine microbiologist and executive director of the Ocean Genome Legacy Foundation, who has been studying shipworms for more than two decades.


The specimen collection, cultivation of microorganisms isolated from wild mollusks, screening and assay development, and chemical identification of compounds are activities that are interwoven throughout the project and will be performed at the Marine Science Institute, University of the Philippines, under the direction of Gisela P. Concepcion, Ph.D., a marine natural products chemist who was a key figure in establishing the Philippine PharmaSeas program, which facilitates collaborations focusing on natural products research.

Picture: L. pedicellatus, a shipworm researchers will study to discover enzymes produced by bacteria inside the worm's gills.

References:

Biopact: Joint Genome Institute announces 2009 genome sequencing targets: 44 projects, focus on bioenergy and environmental applications - Thursday, July 03, 2008

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Woody biomass utilization for power generation – an overview

In the following guest contribution, Salman Zafar outlines the potential of woody biomass for the production of power and heat. Biomass based electricity is one of the fastest growing renewable energy sectors and is set to remain the most important source in many countries.

Biomass power is the largest source of renewable energy as well as a vital part of the waste management infrastructure. An increasing global awareness about environmental issues is acting as the driving force behind the use of alternative and renewable sources of energy. A greater emphasis is being laid on the promotion of bioenergy in the industrialized as well as developing world to counter environmental issues.

Biomass may be used for energy production at different scales, including large-scale power generation, CHP, or small-scale thermal heating projects at governmental, educational or other institutions. Biomass comes from both human and natural activities and incorporates by-products from the timber industry, agricultural crops, forestry residues, household wastes, and wood. The resources range from corn kernels to corn stalks, from soybean and canola oils to animal fats, from prairie grasses to hardwoods, and even include algae. The largest source of energy from wood is pulping liquor or black liquor, a waste product from the pulp and paper industry.
  • Woody biomass is the most important renewable energy source if proper management of vegetation is ensured. The main benefits of woody biomass are as follows:
  • Uniform distribution over the world’s surface, in contrast to finite sources of energy.
  • Less capital-intensive conversion technologies employed for exploiting the energy potential.
  • Attractive opportunity for local, regional and national energy self-sufficiency.
  • Techno-economically viable alternative to fast-depleting fossil fuel reserves.
  • Reduction in GHGs emissions.
  • Provide opportunities to local farmers, entrepreneurs and rural population in making use of its sustainable development potential.
The United States is currently the largest producer of electricity from biomass having more than half of the world's installed capacity. Biomass represents 1.5% of the total electricity supply compared to 0.1% for wind and solar combined. More than 7800 MW of power is produced in biomass power plants installed at more than 350 locations in the U.S., which represent about 1% of the total electricity generation capacity. According to the International Energy Agency, approximately 11% of the energy is derived from biomass throughout the world.

Biomass Resources

Biomass processing systems constitute a significant portion of the capital investment and operating costs of a biomass conversion facility depending on the type of biomass to be processed as well as the feedstock preparation requirements. Its main constituents are systems for biomass storage, handling, conveying, size reduction, cleaning, drying, and feeding. Harvesting biomass crops, collecting biomass residues, and storing and transporting biomass resources are critical elements in the biomass resource supply chain:
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All processing of biomass yields by-products and waste streams collectively called residues, which have significant energy potential. A wide range of biomass resources are available for transformation into energy in natural forests, rural areas and urban centres. Some of the sources have been discussed in the following paragraphs:


Figure 1 (click to enlarge): A host of natural and human activities contributes to the biomass feedstock.

1. Pulp and paper industry residues

The largest source of energy from wood is the waste product from the pulp and paper industry called black liquor. Logging and processing operations generate vast amounts of biomass residues. Wood processing produces sawdust and a collection of bark, branches and leaves/needles. A paper mill, which consumes vast amount of electricity, utilizes the pulp residues to create energy for in-house usage.

2. Forest residues
Forest harvesting is a major source of biomass for energy. Harvesting may occur as thinning in young stands, or cutting in older stands for timber or pulp that also yields tops and branches usable for bioenergy. Harvesting operations usually remove only 25 to 50 percent of the volume, leaving the residues available as biomass for energy. Stands damaged by insects, disease or fire are additional sources of biomass. Forest residues normally have low density and fuel values that keep transport costs high, and so it is economical to reduce the biomass density in the forest itself.

3. Agricultural or crop residues
Agriculture crop residues include corn stover (stalks and leaves), wheat straw, rice straw, nut hulls etc. Corn stover is a major source for bioenergy applications due to the huge areas dedicated to corn cultivation worldwide.

4. Urban wood waste
Such waste consists of lawn and tree trimmings, whole tree trunks, wood pallets and any other construction and demolition wastes made from lumber. The rejected woody material can be collected after a construction or demolition project and turned into mulch, compost or used to fuel bioenergy plants.

5. Energy crops
Dedicated energy crops are another source of woody biomass for energy. These crops are fast-growing plants, trees or other herbaceous biomass which are harvested specifically for energy production. Rapidly-growing, pest-tolerant, site and soil-specific crops have been identified by making use of bioengineering. For example, operational yield in the northern hemisphere is 10-15 tonnes/ha annually. A typical 20 MW steam cycle power station using energy crops would require a land area of around 8,000 ha to supply energy on rotation.

Herbaceous energy crops are harvested annually after taking two to three years to reach full productivity. These include grasses such as switchgrass, elephant grass, bamboo, sweet sorghum, wheatgrass etc.

Short rotation woody crops are fast growing hardwood trees harvested within five to eight years after planting. These include poplar, willow, silver maple, cottonwood, green ash, black walnut, sweetgum, and sycamore.

Industrial crops are grown to produce specific industrial chemicals or materials, e.g. kenaf and straws for fiber, and castor for ricinoleic acid. Agricultural crops include cornstarch and corn oil; soybean oil and meal; wheat starch, other vegetable oils etc. Aquatic resources such as algae, giant kelp, seaweed, and microflora also contribute to bioenergy feedstock.

Thermo-chemical Conversion Technologies

There are many ways to generate electricity from biomass using thermo-chemical pathway. These include directly-fired or conventional steam approach, co-firing, pyrolysis and gasification.

1. Direct Fired or Conventional Steam Boiler
Most of the woody biomass-to-energy plants use direct-fired system or conventional steam boiler, whereby biomass feedstock is directly burned to produce steam leading to generation of electricity. In a direct-fired system, biomass is fed from the bottom of the boiler and air is supplied at the base. Hot combustion gases are passed through a heat exchanger in which water is boiled to create steam.

Biomass is dried, sized into smaller pieces and then pelletized or briquetted before firing. Pelletization is a process of reducing the bulk volume of biomass feedstock by mechanical means to improve handling and combustion characteristics of biomass. Wood pellets are normally produced from dry industrial wood waste, as e.g. shavings, sawdust and sander dust. Pelletization results in:
1.Concentration of energy in the biomass feedstock.
2.Easy handling, reduced transportation cost and hassle-free storage.
3.Low-moisture fuel with good burning characteristics.
4.Well-defined, good quality fuel for commercial and domestic use.
The processed biomass is added to a furnace or a boiler to generate heat which is then run through a turbine which drives an electrical generator. The heat generated by the exothermic process of combustion to power the generator can also be used to regulate temperature of the plant and other buildings, making the whole process much more efficient. Cogeneration of heat and electricity provides an economical option, particularly at sawmills or other sites where a source of biomass waste is already available. For example, wood waste is used to produce both electricity and steam at paper mills.

2. Co-firing
Co-firing is the simplest way to use biomass with energy systems based on fossil fuels. Small portions (upto 15%) of woody and herbaceous biomass such as poplar, willow and switch grass can be used as fuel in an existing coal power plant. Like coal, biomass is placed into the boilers and burned in such systems. The only cost associated with upgrading the system is incurred in buying a boiler capable of burning both the fuels, which is a more cost-effective than building a new plant.

The environmental benefits of adding biomass to coal includes decrease in nitrogen and sulphur oxides which are responsible for causing smog, acid rain and ozone pollution. In addition, relatively lower amount of carbon dioxide is released into the atmospheres. Co-firing provides a good platform for transition to more viable and sustainable renewable energy practices.

3. Pyrolysis
Pyrolysis offers a flexible and attractive way of converting solid biomass into an easily stored and transportable fuel, which can be successfully used for the production of heat, power and chemicals. In pyrolysis, biomass is subjected to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen resulting in the production of pyrolysis oil (or bio-oil), char or syngas which can then be used to generate electricity. The process transforms the biomass into high quality fuel without creating ash or energy directly.

Wood residues, forest residues and bagasse are important short term feed materials for pyrolysis being aplenty, low-cost and good energy source. Straw and agro residues are important in the longer term; however straw has high ash content which might cause problems in pyrolysis. Sewage sludge is a significant resource that requires new disposal methods and can be pyrolysed to give liquids.

Pyrolysis oil can offer major advantages over solid biomass and gasification due to the ease of handling, storage and combustion in an existing power station when special start-up procedures are not necessary.

4. Biomass gasification

Gasification processes convert biomass into combustible gases that ideally contain all the energy originally present in the biomass. In practice, conversion efficiencies ranging from 60% to 90% are achieved. Gasification processes can be either direct (using air or oxygen to generate heat through exothermic reactions) or indirect (transferring heat to the reactor from the outside). The gas can be burned to produce industrial or residential heat, to run engines for mechanical or electrical power, or to make synthetic fuels.

Biomass gasifiers are of two kinds - updraft and downdraft. In an updraft unit, biomass is fed in the top of the reactor and air is injected into the bottom of the fuel bed. The efficiency of updraft gasifiers ranges from 80 to 90 per cent on account of efficient counter-current heat exchange between the rising gases and descending solids. However, the tars produced by updraft gasifiers imply that the gas must be cooled before it can be used in internal combustion engines. Thus, in practical operation, updraft units are used for direct heat applications while downdraft ones are employed for operating internal combustion engines.


Figure 2 (click to enlarge): Schematic of updraft and downdraft gasifiers

Large scale applications of gasifiers include comprehensive versions of the small scale updraft and downdraft technologies, and fluidized bed technologies. The superior heat and mass transfer of fluidized beds leads to relatively uniform temperatures throughout the bed, better fuel moisture utilization, and faster rate of reaction, resulting in higher throughput capabilities.

Woody Biomass and Sustainability
Harvesting practices remove only a small portion of branches and tops leaving sufficient biomass to conserve organic matter and nutrients. Moreover, the ash obtained after combustion of biomass compensates for nutrient losses by fertilizing the soil periodically in natural forests as well as fields. The impact of forest biomass utilization on the ecology and biodiversity has been found to be insignificant. In fact, forest residues are environmentally beneficial because of their potential to replace fossil fuels as an energy source.

Plantation of energy crops on abandoned agricultural land will lead to an increase in species diversity. The creation of structurally and species diverse forests helps in reducing the impacts of insects, diseases and weeds. Similarly the artificial creation of diversity is essential when genetically modified or genetically identical species are being planted. Short-rotation crops give higher yields than forests so smaller tracts are needed to produce biomass which results in the reduction of area under intensive forest management. An intelligent approach in forest management will go a long way in the realization of sustainability goals.

Improvements in agricultural practices promises to increased biomass yields, reductions in cultivation costs, and improved environmental quality. Extensive research in the fields of plant genetics, analytical techniques, remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) will immensely help in increasing the energy potential of biomass feedstock.

Bioenergy systems offer significant possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to their immense potential to replace fossil fuels in energy production. Biomass reduces emissions and enhances carbon sequestration since short-rotation crops or forests established on abandoned agricultural land accumulate carbon in the soil. Bioenergy usually provides an irreversible mitigation effect by reducing carbon dioxide at source, but it may emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels unless biomass fuels are produced unsustainably.

Conclusions
Biomass can play a major role in reducing the reliance on fossil fuels by making use of thermo-chemical conversion technologies. In addition, the increased utilization of biomass-based fuels will be instrumental in safeguarding the environment, generation of new job opportunities, sustainable development and health improvements in rural areas.

The development of efficient biomass handling technology, improvement of agro-forestry systems and establishment of small and large-scale biomass-based power plants can play a major role in rural development. Biomass energy could also aid in modernizing the agricultural economy. A large amount of energy is expended in the cultivation and processing of crops like sugarcane, coconut, and rice which can met by utilizing energy-rich residues for electricity production.

The integration of biomass-fuelled gasifiers in coal-fired power stations would be advantageous in terms of improved flexibility in response to fluctuations in biomass availability and lower investment costs. The growth of the bioenergy industry can also be achieved by laying more stress on green power marketing.


About the author

Salman Zafar has been active in the field of waste management for the past few years. His areas of expertise include biomass utilization, waste-to-energy conversion and sustainable development. After obtaining the Masters degree in Chemical Engineering, he has been involved in industrial research on environmentally sound biomass-to-energy conversion processes in different waste sectors. Currently, he is working as an independent renewable energy advisor. His articles have been appearing in reputed journals, magazines and web-portals on a regular basis. He can be reached at [email protected]



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