News and Trends

The Biopact website reports that more and more organizations are taking notice of the concept of “carbon-negative bioenergy”. Under this concept, bioenergy is produced with a “net negative carbon balance”. This means that the carbon dioxide released (due to the biofuel production process, and during the combustion/use of the biofuel) is much lesser than the carbon dioxide that is captured/consumed (during feedstock cultivation or during biofuel production). Carbon-neutral energy options, such as wind, solar, and hydro, have zero net carbon dioxide emissions. Fossil fuels are classified as “carbon-positive energy”. “Carbon-negative bioenergy” usually involves the production of the bioenergy/biofuel that is coupled to some form of CCS (carbon capture and storage) technology at some point in the biofuel production cycle. Two common examples of CCS technology are” (1) geosequestration, and (2) biochar. In geosequestration, the carbon dioxide that is released from biofuel production, is captured and pumped into geological formations below the earth’s surface. In the biochar technology, the biofuel is produced by pyrolysis (oxygen-free burning) of the biomass. The liquid and gaseous products after biomass pyrolysis can be further processed into biofuels, while the carbon-rich solid residue, called “biochar” is stored in the soil. The Biopact website mentions some organizations/publications which highlight the importance or benefits of carbon-negative energy, and sees this as a positive sign..

The Asiatic Center for Genome Technology Sdn Bhd (ACGT, Malaysia) and Synthetic Genomics, Inc (SGI, United States) have recently announced the “completion of a first draft assembly and annotation of the oil palm genome”, and “progress in the sequencing and analyzing of the jatropha genome”. Palm oil and jatropha are common feedstocks for the production of biodiesel in tropical countries. This initial step of the joint venture paves the way for the better understanding of genes encoding traits that are important for biodiesel production, and the development of improved varieties that can contribute to cost effective biodiesel production. The SGI website reports that a combination of two palm oil races (“tenera” and “dura”) were sequenced, “to produce seven-fold coverage of the plant’s genome”, representing the “most comprehensive sequence and analysis of this genome”. Under the joint venture, the sequencing and analysis of the jatropha genome will be continued to achieve ten-fold coverage..

Sapphire Energy, an American company, recently announced that they have produced a “renewable 91 octane gasoline that conforms to ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) certification”, using photosynthetic microorganisms, such as algae. A more detailed overview of the production process was not divulged, but according to the Sapphire Energy press release, “company scientists have built a platform that uses sunlight, carbon dioxide, photosynthetic microorganisms (algae) and non-arable land to produce carbon-neutral alternatives to petrochemical-based processes and products”. The company’s research partners include the United States Department of Energy (US-DOE) Joint Genome Project, the University of California at San Diego, Scripps Research Institute and the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

Related information: octane number in gasoline

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

The derivation of fuel from biomass in managed forests (“forest fuels”) is an alternative way of obtaining bioenergy to replace fossil fuels. There are different ways for recovering, storing and handling forest fuels; and each method has a different implication on carbon dioxide emissions. A comparative analysis of different forest fuel systems (with focus on recovery and transport systems) was made by Lisa Eriksson of Mid Sweden University. Using a “systems analysis methodology in a life cycle perspective”, factors such as cost, primary energy use and carbon dioxide emissions were analyzed. A large scale, long distance transportation of biofuels from Central Sweden was shown to be “cost-effective and attractive” with respect to carbon dioxide emissions. Also, a “bundle recovery system” had more biomass per hectare, and had more of the product delivered to the end user, compared to the “pellet system”. Pelletizing the biomass was said to have more conversion losses..

The TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) website recently featured a talk by Craig Venter about his work on synthetic biology and its possible applications for the creation of microbial life forms which have the ability to efficiently capture/convert carbon dioxide into “fourth-generation biofuels”. Fourth generation biofuels are those that are obtained from feedstocks and can capture/store carbon dioxide or convert it into useful/non-harmful forms, during feedstock cultivation or during the biofuel processing of the feedstock. In simple terms, the creation of “synthetic life” starts with the chemical construction of a synthetic chromosome containing the desired target genes, inserting the synthetic chromosome into an “empty” (chromosome-fee) cell, and then “booting up” the transformed cell in order to regenerate it. Craig Venter is known for his efforts on the sequencing of the human genome, and is active in synthetic biology research. The complete video of Mr. Venter’s talk can be accessed at the TED website (URL above)..

In an effort to contribute to the bioenergy program of the United States, the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center (OBC) has secured land “to enable the planting of more than 1,100 acres of production-scale demonstration fields for cellulosic energy crops”. Planting is said to take place in the next 45 days. About 1,000 acres of land in Guymon, Oklahoma will be planted with switchgrass, a perennial grass which can grow on marginal land. Switchgrass does not compete as a food resource, and contains a higher energy content compared to corn ethanol. A cellulosic ethanol production facility, about less than 35 miles from the Guymon plantation, is also under construction and will use the switchgrass as its raw material. The start of plant operation is planned by 2010. According to the Noble Foundation website, “The OBC demonstration fields will provide academia and industry a unique ‘living laboratory’ to understand the production and long-term impact of bioenergy crops, as well as experiment with new production techniques and critical harvest, collection and transport methods. The fields [would also serve] as a ’living classroom’ where agricultural producers, policymakers and the general public can see and experience these crops.”..

Biofuels Policy and Economics

A recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (URL above) gives some perspectives on the recent worldwide surge in food prices and possible action plans to address the crisis. The report describes the recent “high price event” in the prices of food/feed commodities, as “unlike previous high price events."  The price surge covers nearly all major food/feed commodities, with a possibility that the prices “will continue to remain high after the effects of short-term shocks dissipate”. Among the listed factors contributing to high food prices were: (1) “strengthening of linkages among different agricultural commodity markets (i.e. grains, oilseeds and livestock products)” with fuel prices and the consequence of rapid economic/population growth in many emerging countries, and (2) “biofuels and financial instruments that influence not only the costs of production of agricultural commodities (such as sugar, maize, cassava, oilseeds and palm oil) but also the demand for them”. The additional demand for maize (for bioethanol) and rapeseed (for biodiesel) “has had the potential for the strongest impacts on prices”. Countries which utilize food-based feedstocks for biofuels production may need to review their biofuel policies. One of the suggested strategies to address high food prices (or to mitigate negative impacts) involves a “twin-track approach”: (1) “actions to protect the welfare of the most poor and hungry by providing direct support on an emergency basis and beyond” and (2) “providing public resources and designing policies to re-launch agriculture and revitalize rural economies over the medium term”..

A round table discussion/debate on the opportunities and risks of biofuels production in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was recently held and attended by academics from the University of Kinshasa, representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, WWF experts, and civil society/international organizations. The event was coordinated by the Réseau de Promotion de la Démocratie et des Droits Economiques et Sociaux (PRODDES), and supported by the NGO 'Solidarité socialiste'. The country is said to have a largely untapped agricultural potential which could be harnessed for the production of food and biofuels. According to the Congo Forum website, there was a generally positive and optimistic view of biofuels, and this could be explained by “the country's struggle with food production and the disastrous effects of high oil prices.” The hunger problem in the DRC is said to have worsened due to the surge in fossil fuel prices. Rural communities now have difficulty selling their cash crops to the cities because of increasingly prohibitive transport costs. When the food reaches the cities, it would already become very expensive for the average Congolese. Dutch Development Organization Coordinator, Alain Rousseaux, mentioned that locally produced biofuels can contribute to the reversal of the catastrophic situation in the country. “Farming communities, who face not the slightest shortage of land, can grow their own fuel, thus limit their food production costs and bring the products to market at a far lower cost than if they were to rely on ultra-costly diesel and gasoline.”. The high cost of petroleum-based fuels for food production would be significantly reduced by less costly biofuels..