News and Trends

The German Minister of Environment, Sigmar Gabriel, announced that he has stopped the planned increase in the mandatory ethanol blend in gasoline (from the present 5% to 10%). Some industry and political groups have criticized the planned increase, saying that the higher ethanol blends could damage older cars. More than 3 million cars in Germany are reportedly “not ready” for the higher fuel blend; they “could be forced to switch to the more expensive unblended gasoline, because of possible damage”. The German Biofuel Association welcomed the Environment Minister’s move, arguing that “bioethanol used for blending in Germany was imported largely from third world countries where deforestation may have taken place to expand farmland”. Consequently, importation would not guarantee “sustainable production methods”. The present level of 5% ethanol blend in gasoline, together with the present level of 7% biodiesel blend in regular diesel fuel, will be maintained..

The ENN (Environmental News Network) website presents a summary of a paper by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). The paper entitled, “The Multilateral Trade and Investment Context for Biofuels: Issues and Challenges" discusses some factors influencing the long-term sustainability of the fast growing biofuel industry. Susan Murphy, IATP Senior Advisor and author, mentions that with the very fast-paced development of the biofuel industry, “governments, particularly at the global level have been slow to set rules to manage its growth”. The paper also “outlines the different interests of the largest global players in the biofuel market: United States, European Union, Brazil, as well as “analyzes biofuel trade within the context of World Trade Organization rules governing agriculture, environmental goods, services, patents and investment”.  Among the highlights of the paper are: (1) Answers to biofuel questions such as “acceptability of production and processing method as a basis for discrimination among goods”, and “the legitimacy of trade restrictive measures that support goals set in multilateral environmental agreements”, (2) Issues on biofuel feedstocks being generally energy-intensive, often using industrial monocultural production, and are exerting negative impacts on soil, water and ecological biodiversity, (3) “Investment from foreign firms seeking biofuel feedstock is also aggravating land disputes and intensifying the political fight to protect food security”, (4) The necessity to have multilateral discussion “to set trade and investment rules that support a fair and sustainable biofuel sector”..

The Central Florida Pipeline (owned by American energy company, Kinder Morgan) is a 104-mile long pipeline which runs between the Port of Tampa and Orlando Airport. It has been transporting gasoline since 1965. Recently, it is being retrofitted to transport denatured alcohol by the end of this year, and is set to become the first national ethanol pipeline in the United States. Company spokesman Joe Hiller said that gaskets, seals and other components in the petrol pipeline are being replaced with “ethanol-compatible parts”. A test ethanol run is set to flow by the third or fourth quarter of this year. According to the “Ethanol Business” website, “the booming US ethanol industry is watching the project closely”. Since the shipping of ethanol by pipeline would be cheaper than shipping by train or truck. A successful ethanol run “could lead to a boom in ethanol pipeline projects nationwide”..

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

Scientists from the University of Texas at Austin (United States) have developed a cellulose-producing microorganism which can be used as a biofuel feedstock without having to utilize arable land. The microorganism belongs to a phylum (taxonomic group) of bacteria, called “Cyanobacteria” (sometimes known as “blue green algae”). The scientific team of Professor R.Malcolm Brown, Jr and Dr. David Nobles, also discovered that their cellulose-producing cyanobacteria could also secrete simple sugars like glucose and sucrose. These are the raw materials needed for the fermentative production of bioethanol. In developing the microorganism, the scientists took a cyanobacterium, and successfully inserted the cellulose-producing genes of a non-photosynthetic “vinegar” bacterium, Acetobacter xylinum, a well known producer of lignin-free bacterial cellulose. The photosynthetic and nitrogen-fixing ability of the genetically-modified microorganism can allow its growth as a biofuel feedstock without the need for expensive cultivation inputs: “(1) The new cyanobacteria use sunlight as an energy source to produce and excrete sugars and cellulose, (2) Glucose, cellulose and sucrose can be continually harvested without harming or destroying the cyanobacteria, and (3) Cyanobacteria that can fix atmospheric nitrogen can be grown without petroleum-based fertilizer input”. According to Brown and Nobles, the cyanobacteria “can be grown in production facilities on non-agricultural lands using salty water unsuitable for human consumption or crops”..

Biofuels Processing

Hydrogen is the “clean fuel” used in hybrid cars, in specially designed batteries (called “fuel cells”) to generate electrical energy to drive the car’s engine. Hybrid cars have an electrical power source, as well as a regular fossil-fuel-powered source which can be operated for optimum energy consumption. Although hydrogen is considered “clean energy”, its production is still “expensive and inefficient” . Recently, scientists from  Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the United States have developed a process for converting plant sugars into hydrogen, “which could be used to cheaply and efficiently power vehicles equipped with hydrogen fuel cells without producing any pollutants”. Methods of “in vitro synthetic biology” have been reportedly used to develop the process. Dr. Percival Zhang, the lead researcher, says that the process is “revolutionary”, and it “has opened up a whole new direction in hydrogen research. With technology improvement, sugar-powered vehicles could come true eventually”.

Related information of synthetic biology

Biofuels Policy and Economics

In an effort to encourage and maintain viable biofuel production amid rising palm oil prices, the Indonesian National Biofuel Development Committee (NBDC) has proposed a tax cut in the form of reduction in value added tax (VAT). Palm oil is the main raw material for biodiesel in Indonesia, and its price has almost risen two-fold to about 783 Euros per tonne. NBDC secretary, Evita Legowo, says that the proposed tax cut has a mechanism that is similar to the palm oil export tax introduced in February this year. Under the mechanism of the palm export tax, “the government sets a 15% export tax if the price of crude palm oil (CPO) is between US$ 1,100 (about 693 Euros) and US 1,200 per tonne, 20% if the price is between $1,200 to $1,300 per tonne, and 30% if the price exceeds $1,300 per tonne..

The government of Great Britain has started a review of the environmental and economic impacts of its biofuel development policy. According to British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, "We need to look closely at the impact on food prices and the environment of different production methods and to ensure we are more selective in our support for biofuels". If the results of the review call for change in approach in the management of biofuels development, the UK would also push for a change in the European Union biofuel targets..