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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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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Unique rainforest fungus makes bio-hydrocarbons, including diesel from cellulose


A unique fungus that makes diesel compounds has been discovered living in trees in the rainforest, according to a paper published in the November issue of Microbiology. The fungus is potentially a totally new source of green energy and scientists are now working to develop its fuel producing potential.
This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances. The fungus can even make these diesel compounds from cellulose, which would make it a better source of biofuel than anything we use at the moment. - Professor Gary Strobel, Montana State University
The fungus, which has been named Gliocladium roseum, produces a number of different molecules made of hydrogen and carbon that are found in diesel. Because of this, the fuel it produces is called "myco-diesel".

Gliocladium roseum lives inside the Ulmo tree in the Patagonian rainforest. The researchers were trying to discover totally novel fungi in this tree by exposing its tissues to the volatile antibiotics of the fungus Muscodor albus. Quite unexpectedly, G. roseum grew in the presence of these gases when almost all other fungi were killed. It was also making volatile antibiotics. Then when they examined the gas composition of G. roseum, the researchers were totally surprised to learn that it was making a plethora of hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon derivatives. The results were totally unexpected.

Many microbes produce hydrocarbons. Fungi that live in wood seem to make a range of potentially explosive compounds. In the rainforest, G. roseum produces lots of long chain hydrocarbons and other biological molecules. When the researchers grew it in the lab, it produced fuel that is even more similar to the diesel we put in our cars.

When crops are used to make biofuel they have to be processed before they can be turned into useful compounds by microbes, said Professor Strobel. G. roseum however can make myco-diesel directly from cellulose, the main compound found in plants and paper. This means if the fungus was used to make fuel, a step in the production process could be skipped:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose make up the cell walls in plants. Lignin is the glue that holds the cellulose fibres together and makes the plant stand up. These compounds form the part of the plant that most animals cannot digest. They makes up non-foodstuffs like stalks, sawdust and woodchip. Nearly 430 million tonnes of plant waste are produced from just farmland every year; a huge amount to recycle. In current biofuel production, this waste is treated with enzymes called cellulases that turn the cellulose into sugar. Microbes then ferment this sugar into ethanol that can be used as a fuel.
We were very excited to discover that G. roseum can digest cellulose. Although the fungus makes less myco-diesel when it feeds on cellulose compared to sugars, new developments in fermentation technology and genetic manipulation could help improve the yield. In fact, the genes of the fungus are just as useful as the fungus itself in the development of new biofuels. - Professor Strobel
The discovery also questions our knowledge of the way fossil fuels are made. The accepted theory is that crude oil, which is used to make diesel, is formed from the remains of dead plants and animals that have been exposed to heat and pressure for millions of years, added Professor Strobel. If fungi like this are producing myco-diesel all over the rainforest, they may have contributed to the formation of fossil fuels.


Picture 1
: Colorized environmental scanning electron microscope photo of Gliocladium roseum, an endophtic fungus that produces myco-diesel hydrocarbons. Credit: Gary Strobel.

Picture 2: Culture plate of Gliocladium roseum, an endophtic fungus that produces myco-diesel hydrocarbons. Credit: Gary Strobel.

References:
Gary A. Strobel, Berk Knighton, Katreena Kluck, Yuhao Ren, Tom Livinghouse, Meghan Griffin, Daniel Spakowicz and Joe Sears, "The production of myco-diesel hydrocarbons and their derivatives by the endophytic fungus Gliocladium roseum (NRRL 50072)". Microbiology 154 , 3319-3328; 2008, doi: 10.1099/mic.0.2008/022186-0


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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Researchers: tropical plantation farms can aid biodiversity


There has been a lot of criticism about monocultures at the margin of the tropical forest frontier, but researchers have now found that certain models of plantation farming can in fact help sustain the biodiversity of these forests. The scientists found that an areca nut plantation in south-west India supported 90% of the bird species found in surrounding native forests. The low-impact agriculture system has been used for more than 2,000 years and should be considered as a new option for conservation efforts, they added. The findings appear in an open access article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team of scientists from the US and India chose the site on the coastal fringes of the Western Ghat mountain range because it met a number of attributes the study required:
  • a long history of continuous agricultural production
  • intense human pressure
  • extensive natural areas still remaining
The landscape consisted of a mixture of intact forest, "production forest" (where non-timber products, such as leaves, were allowed to be removed) and areas of cash crops, primarily areca nut palms (Areca catechu).

The researchers found a total of 51 forest (bird) species in this study system, they wrote. These species were broadly distributed across the landscape, with 46 (90%) found outside of the intact forest. Within areca nut plantations, they recorded threatened forest species, such as the great hornbill (Buceros bicornis) and the Malabar grey hornbill (Ocyceros griseus).

The team said the combination of the height of the areca nut palms (Areca catechu) and the plantations' close proximity to the intact forest created the necessary ecological conditions to support forest bird species.

They added that data showed the distribution of species in the area had been relatively stable for more than 2,000 years, before the first farmers cultivated the area.

As well as having a high ecological value, the plantations were also economically productive. The areca nut is consumed by about 10% of the world's population, predominantly Asian communities.

The shade provided by the palms' canopy also created the conditions that allowed farmers to grow other high-value crops, such as pepper, vanilla and bananas.

Rather than expanding the plantations, the farmers relied upon the leaf litter from the surrounding production forests to produce mulch for their crops, rather than using costly fertilisers. The researchers also said alternative crops that could be grown in the wet lowlands, such as rice, yielded lower returns both economically and ecologically:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Lead author Jai Ranganathan, from the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), said the findings provided another option for conservationists to consider
If it is not possible to make places completely protected areas then they can look at whether a system like this will help support the rich biodiversity. [...] It identifies another tool that can be used by conservationists. - Dr Jai Ranganathan
While the production system delivers economic and environmental benefits, health officials have voiced concerns about how the areca nut, which contain a stimulant called arecoline, is primarily consumed.

It is chewed either by itself or as a part of "betel quid", which generally consists of a betel leaf (from the Piper betle vine) wrapped around pieces of areca nut, slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and generally tobacco.

In 2003, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a warning that linked chewing areca nuts to an increased risk of cancer.

Dr Ranganathan said the researchers were aware of the health concerns associated with the areca crop, but the purpose of the study was to understand how tropical agriculture and biodiversity could co-exist in close proximity.

Areca nut cultivation has an extremely long history in south and south-east Asia and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, he said. Given this persistence, I feel that it would be a shame to overlook the potential benefits of this cultivation system for biodiversity.

Dr Ranganathan said that he intended to look for further examples of established agriculture and cultivation practises in the region that provided habitats that supported a high level of biodiversity.

The research indicates that low-impact tropical biofuel plantations can be made equally sustainable, even at the forest frontier, and possibly help millions of the world's poorest.

References:

Jai Ranganathan, R. J. Ranjit Daniels, M. D. Subash Chandran, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Gretchen C. Daily, "Sustaining biodiversity in ancient tropical countryside", PNAS published early edition, November 3, 2008, doi:10.1073/pnas.0808874105



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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A bright new era


Americans are choosing to enter a bright new era. A time in which the relations between nations will be based on respect and reason; a time in which the excluded and the weak are no longer ignored; a time in which the fragility of our planet will be understood and natural resources managed more sustainably.

Congratulations!

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Number of U.S. soil science students in decline - even though soil science holds great future


An interesting article in the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education discusses the decline in the number of soil science students at universities across the United States. This trend is worrying, but it may soon reverse, as soil science is becoming a very important topic in a wide range of crucial fields that deal with renewable energy, climate change, biodiversity and economic development. Soil science is no longer the sole realm of those active in agriculture. Soils are the key to a whole range of extremely important ecosystem services that may soon receive a real market value. In short, soils are sexy. And so are the scientists studying them.

Soils have become the nexus at which a set of pressing world problems converge: from the destruction of forests in the tropics - fueled by declining soil fertility - to the capacity of soils to sequester vast amounts of carbon and to mitigate climate change; or from the role soils play in cleaning up water and air, to the wealth in biodiversity they represent as the home to a great variety of (unknown) microorganisms that may play a role in the production of next-generation biofuels or new pharmaceuticals.

But notwithstanding these fascinating topics studied by modern pedologists, it is worth asking the question as to why the number of young people studying soil science as a major, has been declining across the United States. Mary Collins, University of Florida, Gainesville, analysed the trend and looks for explanations.

Collins notes that the faculties who work closely with undergraduate students have seen this steady decline for several years. And there are many reasons one can give for why this is happening. This decline affects not only the students but also the courses offered, the quality of graduate students, and the possible merger of departments, says Collins.

The National Academy of Sciences through the National Committee for Soil Science established a subcommittee to study the declining trend of low enrollments in the major. The outcome of the subcommittee work and international commentaries on this subject are reported in Collins' article. The international soil science education community is also facing a similar tendency.

Today many of America's graduate students come to soil science with various undergraduate backgrounds including non-science disciplines. Collins explains, "These graduates may be outstanding, but they do not have the fundamental educational background in soils common at the undergraduate level."

How can U.S. universities increase the enrollment in their courses and major, Collins asks:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Possible solutions include recruiting the “undecided” students already on-campus; having the best lecturer in the department teach the normally high enrolled introductory soils course; discussing with your colleagues if the courses offered have been static; changing the names of the courses; offering courses through distance education; establishing a combined B.S/M.S. degree program; and advertising how a student can major in soil science and still prepare for a professional school.

So what are the conclusions about the declining enrollment of undergraduate students majoring in soil science? Collins gives several of her concerns as she sees it from her experience at the University of Florida. She ends her article with one final question: Will the soils exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, which opened this past July, have any influence on the millions of children visiting the exhibit to choose soils as a major?


Biopact would want to add an example of how soil science can be very innovative and lead to fascinating careers. The discovery of ancient 'terra preta' soils in the Amazon initially brought together archaeologists, anthropologists and soil scientists. The latter are now trying to uncover the secrets of these highly fertile soils. At the same time they're experimenting with modern-day replications of the ancient soil enhancement technique.

These experiments and the contemporary version of 'terra preta' - known as biochar or agrichar - have opened up an entirely new area of very exciting research, which now brings together experts from fields as diverse as climate change, bioenergy, agronomy, conservation and development economics. Because if the terra preta soil enhancement technique can be made to work today, it could become a strategy to address some of the most important issues of our times: biochar could help tackle climate change, generate carbon-negative renewable energy, reduce fertilizer use, counter tropical deforestration and enhance farming amongst the world's poorest communities.

In short, soil scientists show that their field is not limited per se to the study of the chemical, physical and biological processes at work in soils. In fact, their work is at the center of a series of highly intertwined and broad environmental issues. The soil scientists are often the ones who succeed in weaving these topics together and so present surprising new areas of research that may help solve grand problems.


Picture: soil science students at work in professor Johannes Lehmann's lab, Cornell University. Lehmann pioneers research into biochar. Credit: Cornell University, Dept. of Crop & Soil Science.

References:

Mary E. Collins, "Where have all the soil students gone?", Journal of Natural Resources & Life Science Education, Vol. 37 2008, pp. 117-124.

SSSA is the founding sponsor of an approximately 5,000-square foot exhibition, Dig It! The Secrets of Soil, which opened on July 19, 2008 at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum in Washington, DC.




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Drax announces £2 billion investment in 900MW dedicated biomass

In one of the largest renewable energy deals of this year, Drax Group announced an investment of up to £2 billion (€2.5/$3.2bn) into 900 MW of dedicated biomass baseload power, together with Siemens Project Ventures GmbH. This is one of several multi-billion dollar biomass investments announced so far this year, making the bio-power sector the leading renewable energy sector once again. This single investment will supply an estimated 15% of all of the UK's planned renewable power and generate clean energy for 1.3 million British households.

In its ambitious 'Biomass Growth Strategy' Drax, which operates Europe's largest power plant, says it plans to build three new 300MW power plants in the UK that will exclusively burn biomass, including energy crops and agricultural or forestry waste such as elephant grass, straw and peanut husks.

The plants will be built in partnership with Siemens of Germany, with Drax owning 60 per cent of the project and operating the plants and Siemens owning 40 per cent and supplying the technology. It is proposed that the plants will use Siemens' turbine technology. Drax will manage the biomass supplies.

Building on Drax's expertise in biomass co-firing, the expansion of its renewables business is expected to deliver significant attractive long-term growth opportunities. Each plant meets a mid-teens equity return hurdle based on current market scenarios; and each plant is expected to have a pay-back period of within 6 years from commencement of operations, which is fast, compared to any other type of renewable energy venture.

The new plants once operational will deliver essential baseload generation capacity to the UK electricity market, both making a significant contribution to the UK's renewables target and supporting national security of supply requirements. Note that none of the other major renewables offer baseload power, and remain dependent on fossil fuels.
We are strongly of the view that investment in the generation sector will provide attractive returns. We believe our venture into dedicated biomass-fired generation underpins our commitment to reducing the carbon footprint of electricity generation from the continued, but necessary, reliance on fossil fuels, whilst delivering secure and reliable supplies of electricity. - Dorothy Thompson, Chief Executive of Drax
Based on current estimates, once all three plants are operational Drax will be responsible for supplying at least 15% of the UK's renewable power and up to 10% of total UK electricity. Of all the large EU member states, the UK has been slowest in taking up the implementation of renewables and is behind schedule to meet its EU targets. This biomass investment however changes its position.

The reasons as to why Drax chose to go for biomass are manifold. Biomass-fired generation has a strong strategic fit with Drax's existing business and will enable the company to deliver additional value from its core competencies of production, trading, biomass procurement and handling and project execution:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Drax already produces power by co-firing biomass and is well advanced in its project to increase its biomass co-firing capability to 500MW by mid-2010, which will make Drax Power Station the largest biomass co-firing plant in the world.

Drax has an established biomass business management team in place and already purchases significant volumes of biomass in accordance with its established sustainable sourcing policy. No commitments to construction contracts or financing have been made to date and Drax expects to finalise these arrangements over the next 12-18 months.
We believe that the development of dedicated biomass plant will make a significant contribution to the renewable energy needs of the UK going forward and importantly help to address the challenge of climate change facing the sector. As a leading technology company we are used to providing solutions to such important issues. - Dr. Wolfgang Bischoff, Managing Director of Siemens Project Ventures
Drax also announced a new distribution policy: the company will distribute excess cash generated from operations in 2008 and 2009 and then target a pay-out ratio of 50% of underlying earnings from 2010 onwards to complement the expected growth potential of the group.

Drax has already secured rights to port sites at Immingham and Hull for two of the proposed biomass plants. The Company is also progressing a number of options for the third site, including land at Drax Power Station. The planning application process for each of the two secured sites, including required consents, has recently commenced.

Current estimates of the total capital cost of the investment programme are around £2bn, including investments in ancillary biomass logistics and processing facilities. Construction of the first plant is targeted to commence in late 2010, following execution of the construction and financing contracts and agreed capital commitment, with the first plant expected to be operational in 2014.

In order to fund the expansion of the biomass business, Drax today also announces a change to its distribution policy. For 2008 and 2009, the Company will distribute all excess cash generated from operations after meeting business requirements in each year. Any refinancing proceeds will be used to fund Drax's equity investment in the new biomass business. For 2010 and beyond, Drax will target a pay-out ratio of 50% of underlying earnings in each year, adjusted for non-cash accounting items (principally accounting for derivative contracts).

References:

Drax Group Plc: Biomass Growth Strategy - October 23, 2008.


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