Biofuels Supplement

News and Trends

UN Report on Bioenergy Cautions  on Biofuels Adoption

A recent report by the United Nations-Energy (a “cross agency body” of the United Nations) presents a more cautious view on the benefits of biofuels production and utilization.  The report, entitled “Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers”, attempts to “point key social, economic and ecological sustainability issues” raised by small and large-scale development applications of bioenergy.   While the production and use of biofuels can contribute to a cleaner global air environment, and to employment and income generation in the rural agricultural sector, the potential negative impacts on food security, and other environmental effects must not be ignored. 

Among these potential negative impacts are: (1) diversion of land from food use (to biofuel crop use) could increase food prices (this is reportedly already happening for sugar and corn crops), (2) razing and loss of tropical forests that are cleared for biofuel plantations (the case of palm oil in Indonesia), (3) biodiversity loss, soil erosion and nutrient leaching as a consequence of large scale biofuel monocropping, (4) small-scale farmers may have difficulty competing with large scale biofuel plantations.  Careful planning is necessary to address the potential negative impacts of biofuels and to offset them in order to derive the full benefits of bioenergy.  The report also states that “biofuels are more effective when used for heat and power rather than in transport”.

ICRISAT’s “Pro-poor Biofuels Initiative”  in Drylands and Marginally Productive Areas

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has established a “pro-poor biofuels initiative”.  The initiative is aimed at ensuring food security, energy, and increased livelihood opportunities for small and marginal farmers in the drylands, while at the same time linking them to the “global biofuels revolution”.

Among ICRISAT’s strategies to achieve the above objectives are “innovative research” projects and the “promotion of public/private sector collaborations” that directly benefit the marginal farmers. Crop research is focused on sweet sorghum, as it is a suitable dryland crop because of its low water requirement and provides the dryland farmers with the basic needs for food (grain), animal fodder (stalks) and energy (burning of stalks).  In addition, the sugar extracted from the stalk is a raw material for bioethanol, and can provide additional income when sold to industrial bioethanol processing plants.  ICRISAT is active in developing sweet sorghum varieties which (1) have even lower water requirements , (2) are sturdy under stressful cultivation conditions, and (3) have a higher sugar yields in their stalks.  It has also linked with industrial collaborators which agree to buy the sugar supplied from the farmers.

ICRISAT is also promoting the cultivation of pongamia and jatropha crops, whose oils can be used for biodiesel production.  Collaborations with government and the private sector have been established to rehabilitate degraded lands with jatropha plantations in India.  A jatropha nursery has been established in Niamey, Niger, West Africa to grow the best jatropha varieties with “appropriate traits”.

Opportunities Open for Biofuels Development in Countries of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS)

Agriculture ministers from the Greater Mekong Sub-region (China, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) have endorsed a new program called CASP, or Core Agriculture Support Program. Small-farm holders and the rural poor are envisioned to be the beneficiaries of the program which aims to (1) promote cross border agricultural trade and investment, (2) contribute to food security and reduction of poverty, and (3) promote the sustainable use of natural resources.

One of the thrusts of  CASP is to derive benefits from the “opening up of agriculture to biofuel crops and the attendant new technologies”. It also aims to ensure that “the opening of borders among GMS nations will be spread out equitably.”.

“The service is a landmark in providing agricultural information. It can benefit all the farmers in the subregion as well as development partners, managers, policy makers, traders, and the general public,” said China’s Agriculture Minister Sun Zhengcai.

Netherlands Undertakes Project on Carbon-Negative Bioenergy System

In simple terms, a “carbon negative biofuel” is one that captures more greenhouse gases (as carbon dioxide) in its production cycle (through photosynthesis of the biofuel crop) and releases a lesser quantity when it is burned.  That is, the difference between the CO2 released and the CO2 captured is negative.  Netherlands has plans to develop a carbon-negative bioenery system, which is sometimes called “Bioenergy with Carbon Storage” (BCS)”.  According to the Biopact website, a memorandum of agreement is to be signed between the  Dutch Government and Nuon (a Dutch Energy Company).   The Dutch government will fund the major costs in the carbon capture and storage (CCS) portion.  Part of the investment cost is to be off-set by carbon credits.  Full scale CCS operation is expected in 2013.

Energy Crops and Feedstocks for Biofuels Production

Texas A&M Develops Genetically Modified Sorghum for Bioethanol Production

Scientists from Texas A&M University in the United States recently presented a genetically modified sorghum which is reported to be more cost effective for ethanol production in the drier parts in the United States.  The desirable traits of the GM sorghum are (1) greater plant height and thicker stalk, (2) extended growing season, and (3) drought tolerance.  The crop is estimated to become commercially available within three years.

“Spartan Corn” with Embedded Cellulase Enzymes Added to the List of “Third Generation” Biofuel Feedstocks

The “first wave” of biofuel feedstocks are crops from traditional food sources like corn/sugarcane for bioethanol and coconut/soybean oils from biodiesel.  Biofuel crops from cellulosic plant biomass like switchgrass and poplar, constitute the second generation.  And recently, the third generation of biofuel crops has become the subject of interest.  The Biopact website describes the third generation biofuel feedstocks as biomass or bioenergy crops whose structure or properties are designed or modified to “conform to the requirements of a particular bioconversion process”.  Plants with reduced lignin capacity for easier processing of  cellulose to bioethanol is one example.  Another one is the “Spartan corn” that is being developed and patented by scientists (headed by Prof. Mariam Sticklen) from the University of Michigan.  A unique feature of this new corn variety is that the enzymes that degrade plant cellulose into sugars (the basic fermentation material for bioethanol production) are embedded in the plant tissues (leaves and stalks). By having cellulose-degrading enzymes (called “cellulases”) already embedded in the plant, the leaves and stalks can be processed directly into sugars without addition of enzymes, thus reducing the costs of processing.  The waste material in plant leaves and stalks has become a “value added commodity”.

Biofuels Processing

Studies in Plant Structure of Hot-Water-Pretreated Corn Stover Reveal Reasons for Higher Ethanol Yields

Hot water treatment of plant cellulosic material before enzymatic hydrolysis to sugars and subsequent ethanol fermentation is an accepted practice that increases ethanol yields. Plant structural studies by researchers at Purdue University (United States) have now shown that hot water treatment of corn stover “causes ultrastructural changes and the formation of micron-sized pores that make the cellulose more accessible to hydrolytic enzymes”.  Better accessibility of cellulose results in high sugar yields which translates to higher ethanol production.  A full report of their paper is published in the Biotechnology and Bioengineering journal (URL above).

Process Utilizing Supercritical Water Converts Biological Material into Propane-based Biofuel

Propane is a fuel used for residential heating in the United States, and to a limited extent, has also been used as liquid transportation fuel.  Although its production is currently petroleum-based, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have demonstrated that it could also be produced from biological raw material.  Called the “C3 Bioenergy Process”, it utilizes “supercritical water” (water at high temperature and pressure), which facilitates the conversion of biological compounds to propane.  According to MIT graduate student, Andrew Peterson, supercritical water becomes “non polar” (a chemical property of many organic compounds) during the reaction and mixes with the organic products.  When the reaction approaches completion, the reaction is cooled down to room temperature and the propane “floats out” of the solution.

Biofuels Policy and Economics

Sustained Staying Power of Current Biofuels Boom Analyzed
(accessing the article requires subscription or pay access)

“Will the current biofuels boom go bust?”  This recent article published in Nature Biotechnology (Volume 25 Number 5 May 2007) describes the “current biofuels boom” in the United States, manifested by all-out public and private sector support, like state mandates, incentives, and plans of U.S. automakers to produce “flex-fuel” vehicles.  Support runs on the crest of “evolving political outlook” on the problems related to climate change.  There are concerns, however, that the biofuels momentum might wane, reminiscent of the ethanol-boom-and-bust scenario in the 1980’s.  There are also concerns on the long term economic viability of corn-based ethanol, which is highly sensitive to the up-and-down prices of corn, and the relative prices of oil.  Although cellulosic ethanol is presumably cheaper, large scale production plants have not yet become common.  The article also mentions concerns related to the fickleness of public interest, and states that the “technology for better biofuels” is not yet completely mature.  Nevertheless, experts who were in the 1980’s (previously unsuccessful ethanol scenario) still maintain an optimistic outlook for biofuels, rooted on the fast-paced scientific advances in such fields as enzyme technology and molecular biology.