Biofuels Supplement

News and Trends

UN Announces Formation of the International Biofuels Forum

The United Nations (UN) recently announced the launch of the International Biofuels Forum, a project aimed at promoting the sustained use and production of biofuels on an international scale. Initiated by Brazil, the European Union, the United States, India and China, the project is expected to “help countries with agricultural potential to become major suppliers of alternative fuels”. The forum, according to the UN, would contribute toward the creation of an “alternative fuels market” which will bring economic, social and environmental benefits for both developed and developing countries. The forum will also have regular meetings, to “help set industry standards, and eventually work toward the commodization of biofuels”.

Gene Sequencing Studies of Xylose-fermenting Yeast Opens Potentials for the Future of Ethanol Production from Lignocellulosic Plant Biomass

Some plant biomass, like corn stover, is rich in hemicellulose, a compound that can be broken down to its major component sugar, xylose. Many strains of the yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (common industrial yeast for ethanol fermentation) do not possess sufficient metabolic machinery to convert xylose to ethanol. Pichia stipitis is a yeast known to be good in converting xylose to ethanol under low oxygen environments. A research team from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) and the U.S. Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), has reported that they have “sequenced and assembled the complete genome of P. stipitis. Published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the researchers found “unusual aspects in the genome organization”. The knowledge obtained from the study will be useful in the improvement of xylose metabolism in microorganisms, including in the industrial ethanol-fermenting strain, S. cerevisiae. It could also provide better opportunities for the larger utilization of hemicellulose-rich plant biomass as bioethanol feedstocks.

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

ICRISAT’s New Drought Tolerant Sweet Sorghum Hybrid Performs Well in the Philippines

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has been active in developing new varieties of sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) with the following desirable qualities: drought tolerance, low water requirement and high extractable sugar (sucrose) content. Sweet sorghum is a saccharine biofuel crop, where extractable sugar from the stalk is fermented to produce fuel ethanol. ICRISAT has introduced a new hybrid, SSH-104. It was patented after successful trials in Andhra Pradesh, India, and in the Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU), Philippines. Data from the MMSU study revealed that sweet sorghum has an average yield of 110 tons per hectare. The yield was observed for two cropping seasons, one main crop followed by one ratoon crop. Studies from MMSU also showed that sweet sorghum has a sugar content of 23%, compared to 14% in sugarcane, and with a water requirement of only a quarter that of sugarcane. Based on the sugar content and yield, it is estimated that 10,000 liters of ethanol per hectare could be expected from crop. The encouraging results have prompted Arthur Yap, Secretary of the Philippine Department of Agriculture, to recognize sweet sorghum as a “strategic crop”.

Indian Researchers Looking at Mycorrhiza Technology to Improve Yields in Jatropha Plantations

Indian researchers from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) have taken the challenge to grow Jatropha in poor soils. Jatropha is a crop that may be used for biodiesel production. The researchers are looking at symbiotic fungi (mycorrhiza microorganisms) which are known to improve the plant’s ability to grow in poor soil. According to Alok Adholeya (director of Biotechnology and Management of Bioresouces Division, TERI), they have found a “glomus” species which could improve the Jatropha yields by 15%. The researchers are collaborating with farmers and educating them on the cultivation techniques. The project has reportedly signed up 5,000 farmers who will cultivate an area of 1,000 hectares. Collaboration with local financial institutions was put in place to “develop loan guarantees to fund seed purchases”.

Biofuels Processing

Synthesis Gas Technology for the Conversion of Organic Waste to Ethanol

A technology for converting organic municipal waste is being developed for commercialization by Integrated Environmental Technologies (IET) in the United States. Originally developed by researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Batelle Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL), the process involves heating organic wastes resulting in a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, called synthesis gas or syngas. Syngas is then used as a starting material for producing “a wide variety of fuels and chemicals”. The report also says that the technology can be used to produce ethanol from agricultural residues.

Syngas is produced by heating the waste with small amounts of oxygen at 1200 oC. The charcoal-like residue after the process is then gasified. All inorganic materials are subsequently converted into a “pool of molten glass” which hardens and safely disposed in landfills. The syngas is processed in a catalytic reactor to produce ethanol and methanol. According to Jeff Surma (CEO and President of IET), the technology “makes it possible to produce fuels from the waste at competitive cost.”

Biofuels Policy and Economics

Commision of the European Communities Reports EU Strategy for Biofuels

The European Union (EU) is supporting the development of biofuels for energy security, a better environment and economic rural development. An “EU Strategy for Biofuels” is in place with the aim of promoting biofuels in the EU and developing countries in a manner that is sustainable and “globally positive for the environment”. It also aims to “prepare for large scale use of biofuels”, through development of cost-competitive technologies in the processing of “dedicated feedstocks”, research and development into “second generation” biofuels (or biofuels processed from lingo-cellulosic materials), and market support. A seven-point action plan includes: “(1) stimulating demand for biofuels, (2) capturing environmental benefits, (3) developing the production and distribution of biofuels, (4) expanding feedstock supplies, (5) enhancing trade opportunities, (6) supporting developing countries, and (7) supporting research and development”.

Positive and Negative Impacts of Biofuels in the Philippine Agricultural Landscape

A report by Senen Reyes of the University of Asia and the Pacific, Center for Food and Agribusiness, describes that the demand of ethanol and biodiesel will have a positive effect on Philippine agriculture in terms of adding value for traditional crops. On the other hand, it could also put pressure on the production of agriculture feedstocks and raises the issue as too how much area should be cultivated for food and how much should be allocated for fuel. These feedstocks include sugarcane, coconut, cassava, and corn, among others. The report estimates that for a 5% ethanol blend and an average annual gasoline consumption of four billion liters, about two hundred million liters of ethanol will be needed. This could be derived from 2.4 million tons of sugar cane, 0.5 million tons of corn, or 1.2 million tons of cassava. For biodiesel, about 70 million liters of biodiesel (as methyl esters) will be needed for a 1% blend, assuming an annual diesel consumption of seven billion liters. The requirement would need about 70,000 tons of coconut oil or palm oil, equivalent to an area of about 23,000 hectares of coconut, or 18,000 hectares of palm oil. Among the strategies identified to satisfy the demand of feedstock volume include an increase in harvested area, or an increase in productivity in existing areas. Based on a number of factors, sugarcane and palm oil were identified as potentially good feedstocks.