Research and Development

Researchers from the USA and China reported in the open-access journal PLoS Genetics the results of their study comparing the genetics and metabolic capabilities of microbes residing in the intestinal tracts of grasshoppers, termites, and cutworm. These insects represent three distinct orders and consume different food types.

The study revealed remarkable diversity of microbes living in the insects' guts and a strong correlation between the plant-digesting capabilities of the gut microbes and their hosts' diet. It showed further that grasshoppers harbor efficient cellulose-digesting enzymes that can be tapped for biofuel applications. According to the researchers, the characteristic adaptation to diet changes shown by the gut microbes may be exploited in designing new biotechnological approaches for breaking down the tough molecules involved in bioenergy conversion such as cellulose and lignin.

A study led by researchers from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College, London found that natural genetic variations in willow's ability to form modified wood called reaction wood could explain why some strains of willow produce more biofuels than others.

Known as a physiological response by woody plants to counteract external stresses like strong wind, reaction wood or RW formation creates an excess of sugar molecules in the willow's stems to straighten the plant upwards. The high energy sugars released from the enzymatic breakdown of RW can be fermented into biofuels.  Results of the study published in the journal Biotechnology for Biofuels show that the RW response trait is responsible for the differences observed in willows with respect to sugar yield from enzymatic breakdown of stem biomass. When RW formation was induced in pot-grown trees by bending their stems, sugar yield from enzymatic breakdown was strongly correlated with that for mature field-grown trees. Field studies further revealed a five-fold increase in sugar yield from a willow variety exposed to windy condition when compared with the same variety grown in more sheltered condition. The researchers concluded that further work on RW response trait will be useful in breeding and genetic modification of willows and other woody crops for improved biofuel feedstocks. (full access may require paid subscription)

A study published in the journal Nature reveals the potential of so-called marginal lands or lands unsuited for food crops in ten Midwestern US states for growing mixed species of cellulosic biofuel crops that can produce up to 21 billion liters of ethanol with less greenhouse gas emission. Led by Michigan State University researchers, the study was based on a comparative assessment of six alternative cropping systems over 20 years and the use of a computer model for successional vegetation on marginal lands within 80 kilometers of a potential biorefinery.

Results suggest that such vegetation could produce 21 billion liters of cellulosic ethanol per year from roughly 11 million hectares of currently idle lands. This potential production represents about 25 percent of the 2022 target for cellulosic biofuel set by the US government without initial carbon debt and indirect land-use costs which are associated with food-based biofuels.

Production and Trade

Brazil-based biofuel company Vinema Biorefinarias do Sul Ltda. plans to invest $354 million for the construction of six ethanol fuel plants that will use grains as raw material. The fuel mills will be built in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul where ethanol is imported from other states that manufacture the fuel from sugarcane. The plants are expected to produce annually 600 million liters of ethanol fuel from grains such as rice, sorghum and oats from year 2020.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the United States reported that the country's total biodiesel production in 2012 was 1.1 billion gallons, slightly exceeding the national target and the 2011 production. The month of December posted the lowest monthly volume of 59 million gallons, which was attributed to a year-end slump in which biodiesel production dropped significantly as Congress failed to renew the biodiesel tax incentive. However, a rebound is expected this year with the renewal of the $1-per-gallon incentive as part of the fiscal cliff legislation.

Following a biofuel trade dispute between Spain and Argentina that stemmed  from differences in import rules, the Spanish government has issued a new decree allowing Argentina to resume its export of biodiesel to Spain. This prompted Argentina, the world's largest exporter of soybean biodiesel, to drop its complaint filed last year at the World Trade Organization against the Spanish embargo that sought to limit its biodiesel imports for transport to only those of European origin.

Policy and Regulation

Europe needs a stable legal framework for biofuels research and development, said Nestle Oil's Executive Vice President Matti Lehmus at the Fuels for the Future conference held in Berlin, Germany last January 21 in relation to the European Union's response to address the issue of Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) and to support the development of second-generation biofuels.

The use of food crops as feedstocks to meet the EU 2020 target for renewable energy use has been called into question because of the ILUC impact or the unintended consequence of releasing more carbon emissions due to switching of land usage towards feedstock production. To address the ILUC issue, the EU has proposed to revise its target so that only a maximum of 5% of total fuel in transportation, or half of the overall target, would come from first-generation biofuels, or those made from food crops. The other half would have to come from second-generation biofuels, or those that can be made from other types of biomass such as lignocellulosic or woody crops, algae, etc. Lehmus said that though this proposal is not ideal, it must not be modified by later policy changes. He also said that the lack of EU-wide legislation related to second-generation biofuels is likely to discourage investment in R&D.

A US Federal Court issued a ruling last January 25 against the Environmental Protection Agency's 2012 target that requires refiners to mix 32.7 million liters of cellulosic biofuels into the gasoline and diesel products in the US. The decision of the D.C. Circuit Court upheld the petition against the EPA's 2012 cellulosic biofuel goal because the EPA did not make a "neutral" assessment of the amount of cellulosic biofuels that would be produced last year. Cellulosic biofuels are made from sources such as grasses, wood chips and agricultural waste. In 2005, the US Congress passed the Renewable Fuel Standard that seeks to reduce US reliance on petroleum oil and assumed that cellulosic biofuels would make up a significant portion of the US renewable energy target of 136 billion liters by 2022. However, development of cellulosic biofuel has been slow causing the refiners to file a petition against the unrealistic target.

Events and Announcements

What: Sixth Annual Next Generation Biofuels Conference

Where: Copenhagen, Denmark

When: February 5-7, 2013

What: Sugar and Ethanol Asia

Where: Bangkok, Thailand

When: February 26-27, 2013

What: AlgaeWorld MENA

Where: Dubai, UAE

When: February 25-26, 2013