What Plants for Cellulosic Biofuel Production?

In an article titled “Feedstocks for Lignocellulosic Biofuels” published in Science, Chris Somerville of the University of California, Berkeley, and Deputy Director Steve Long of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with bioenergy analysts Caroline Taylor, Heather Youngs and Sarah Davis at the Energy Biosciences Institute suggest that a diversity of plant species, adaptable to the climate and soil conditions of specific regions of the world, can be used to develop “agroecosystem” for fuel production that are compatible with contemporary environmental goals.

Well, press release and research notes aside, they mean that there can be a set of plant species that could provide substantial amounts of biomass grown widely across the planet without an impact on food and feed production.  The troubled firm BP, well before the Gulf well crisis, funded the study.

The study authors discuss the sustainability of current and future crops that could be used to produce advanced biofuels with emerging technologies that use non-edible parts of plants. Such crops include perennial grasses like Miscanthus grown in the rain-fed areas of the U.S. Midwest, East and South; sugarcane in Brazil and other tropical regions, including the southeastern U.S.; Agave in semiarid regions such as Mexico and the U.S. Southwest; and woody biomass from various sources.

The team takes some assumptive license by making some simplifying assumptions: that technology will become available for converting most of the structural polysaccharides that comprise the bodies of plants to sugars, that all the sugars can be used for fuel production, and that the process energy required for the conversion of the sugars to fuels will be obtained from combustion of the other components of the biomass, mostly the lignin.  That way a sugar-to-ethanol bioconversion process using current technology, a metric ton (MT) of switchgrass or poplar, for example, would be expected to yield about 310 liters of ethanol.

The author’s base is founded on the comparative soil impacts.  Maize or corn plants used completely remove much more soil fertility than a perennial plant.  Perennial plants that use C4 photosynthesis, such as sugarcane, energy cane, elephant grass, switchgrass, and Miscanthus, have intrinsically high light, water, and nitrogen use efficiency as compared with that of C3 species as seen in corn.  Moreover reduced tillage and perennial root systems add carbon to the soil and protect against erosion.

While the team reports that tropical Napier Grass in El Salvador natural stands of Echinochloa polystachya on the Amazon floodplain can respectively reach production of 88 and 100 MT/ha/year, temperate Miscanthus x giganteus produced in England at 52°N a peak biomass of 30 MT/ha/year and harvestable biomass of 20 MT/ha/year. (ha is hectare, 2.47 ha per U.S. acre) Miscanthus also offers an important soil protection effect, seasonality leads to an annual cycle of senescence, in which perennial grasses such as Miscanthus mobilize mineral nutrients from the stem and leaves to the roots at the end of the growing season. Thus, harvest of biomass during the winter results in relatively low rates of removal of minerals.

That could account for the observation that stands grown at Rothamsted, UK showed no response to added nitrogen during a 14-year period during which all biomass was removed each year.  In side-by-side trials in central Illinois, unfertilized M. x giganteus produced 60% more biomass than a well-fertilized highly productive maize crop, and across the state, winter-harvestable yields averaged 30 MT/ha/year.

Miscanthis US Growing Area Map. .

The author’s note in an observation that if Miscanthus were used as the only feedstock, less than half of the 14.2 Mha currently set aside for the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program  (CRP) would be required to deliver the ethanol mandate of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.  Contrary to that readers should be informed that a great chunk of the CRP land area is tiny little headlands, terraces, protective filters along watercourses and the like.  But there are vast amounts of highly erodeable land that could better serve the economy than being used for corn or soybean production.

Its worthwhile to note that as the authors seem to overlook some details they turned up others.  The Global Potential of Bioenergy on Abandoned Agriculture Lands published in 2008 reveals that more than 600 Mha of land worldwide has fallen out of agricultural production, mostly in the last 100 years.

Most readers will know that for tropical production sugarcane isn’t beaten yet and won’t most likely.  Harvested cane arrives with the sugar in liquid form ready for fermentation and the plant remnants can be burned for distillation with power left over for the electric grid.  Many other regions of the world beyond Brazil are also well suited to sugarcane production or formerly produced sugarcane on land that has been abandoned. Thus, “the total amount of fuel that may be produced from sugarcane worldwide could eventually be a very substantial proportion of global transportation fuels.” As the authors seem to be aware – the potential in sugarcane defies calculation in responsible numbers for now.

Approximately 18% of the earth’s surface is semi-arid and prone to drought.  The authors suggest various Agave species that thrive under arid and semi-arid conditions with high efficiencies of water use and drought resistance hold a potential opportunity for production of biomass for fuels.  Agave species that thrive under arid and semi-arid conditions by using a type of photosynthesis called Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) that strongly reduces the amount of water transpired by absorbing CO2 during the cold desert night and then internally assimilating this into sugars through photosynthesis during the warmer days.  By opening their stomata at night, they lose far less water than they would during the day.  Much of the land noted in the Global Potential of Bioenergy on Abandoned Agriculture Lands that has fallen out of agricultural production worldwide is semi-arid, and it appears that the amount of land that may be available for cultivation of Agave species is vast.

The research paper points out that about 89 to 107 Mha of land that were formerly in agriculture globally are now in forests and urban areas.  The authors bravely note the biomass that is harvested annually in the Northern Hemisphere for wood products has an energy content equivalent to approximately 107% of the liquid fuel consumption in the United States.  Wood resources provide regionally specific opportunities for sustainably harvested biomass feedstocks.  That explains the Chevron and Weyerhaeuser deal for biomass.

For this summary its important to note one more point the authors took the time to briefly discuss.  It is inevitable that some mineral soil nutrients will be removed when biomass is harvested, it will be essential to recycle mineral nutrients, which are not consumed in the production of biofuels, from biomass-processing facilities back onto the land. That is virtually all of the minerals.  It needs to be a built in cost before soils are degraded further by any new biomass effort.

This writer’s summary leaves a lot out from the published study including the references, the supporting documentation and the available links.  For this article Science has free registration, an opportunity cost well worth the small effort.

The authors did a good job here, but left a lot out.  There are lots more plants to consider, but the local weather and soils are going to decide what farming can accomplish and the profit for production will in the end decide.  This writers main concern is that highly profitable biomass could displace prime food and feedstock land and force food and feedstock production onto the less optimal soils.  Some oversight, as oppressive as it is – is going to be needed to balance the demands with the conditions – something competition isn’t going to get done.


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Genome Sequenced for Ethanol Producing Yeasts

Scientists from Duke University with colleagues from Brazil led by Lucas Argueso have analyzed the genome structures of bioethanol-producing microorganisms, uncovering genetic clues that will be critical in developing new technologies needed to implement production on a global scale.

Researchers at Stanford University and Brazilian colleagues led by Boris Stambuk and Gavin Sherlock have also analyzed the genome structure of industrial bioethanol yeasts, searching for variations in the number of gene copies in five strains employed in Brazil, including PE-2. Stambuk and colleagues found that all five industrial strains studied harbor amplifications of genes involved in the synthesis of vitamins B6 and B1 — compounds critical for efficient growth and utilization of sugar.

The two studies uncover genetic clues that will be critical in developing the new strains needed to increase production and use other crop sources.

Currently bioethanol is produced from the fermentation of plant material, such as sugar cane and corn, by the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, just as in the production of alcoholic beverages. But the yeast strains thriving in the harsh conditions of industrial fuel ethanol production are much more hardy than their beverage brewing relatives, and surprisingly little is known about how these yeast were adapted to the industrial environment.

When researchers identify the genetic changes that underlie this adaptation, new yeast strains can be engineered to help shift bioethanol production into more crops and across more agricultural regions.

The two studies have been published in Genome Research and take a major steps toward this goal, identifying genomic properties of industrial fuel yeasts that likely gave rise to more robust strains.

Argueso’s group sequenced and analyzed the structure of the entire genome of strain PE-2, a prominent industrial strain in Brazil. The group’s work revealed that portions of the genome are plastic compared to other yeast strains, specifically the peripheral regions of chromosomes, where they observed a number of sequence rearrangements.  The chromosomal rearrangements in PE-2 amplified genes are involved in stress tolerance, which likely contributed to the adaptation of this strain to the industrial environment. As PE-2 is amenable to genetic engineering, the authors believe that their work on PE-2 will open the door to development of new technologies to boost bioethanol production.

Yeast Influenced by Oxygen and Temperature. .

Yeast Influenced by Oxygen and Temperature. .

Stambuk and Sherlock’s group experimentally demonstrated that the gene amplifications confer robust growth in industrial conditions, indicating that these yeasts likely adapted to limited availability of vitamins in the industrial process to gain a competitive advantage. The authors also suggest that this knowledge can be utilized to engineer new strains of yeast capable of even more efficient bioethanol production, from a wider range of agricultural stocks.

These two studies lay out the map of the yeasts genome to further study and closer examination.  Having the full genome is worthwhile in that the whole of the organism can be seen as it relates to the small genetic instructions.  Having the “map” speeds up things for other research.  Over time more parts of the metabolism will be understood thus allowing further engineering.

It’s in the engineering that the potential exists.  As the bioethanol business stands now only rich starch that easily converts to sugar or sugar itself are practical sources for processing material.  Yeast are unicellular fungi, a kind of single cell mushroom if you’ll allow the gross simplification. Other fungi have attributes in their genomes such that they consume the lignin and cellulose, although those are larger organisms.  The potential then exists, if only imaginary for now, that yeast can be engineered to consume other plant materials or other fungi could be engineered to produce ethanol or other alcohols.

But first you have to have the genome and understand it.  These two studies are the cornerstones of the coming growth in plant sources to renewable fuels.  Just as the population of humanity increases the population of the fungi are going to need to increase as well to digest civilizations wastes back into a natural cycle.

Population growth has out paced the adaptations of most of the rest of nature.  Fungi including yeast have an important role, more than just breaking down waste, but producing the fuels needed to keep modern life going.  The choice is more stark that most acknowledge, to have billions of people with standards of living worthy of being a good life, the of the rest of nature is going to need a helping hand in adapting into the planet’s carbon cycle.


Source: New Energy and Fuel

Angry Yet? Obama Finances Oil Exploration Off Brazil

Presidential advisor James Jones met this month with Brazilian officials to talk about lending billions of dollars to Brazil’s state-owned oil company, Petrobras, to finance exploration of the huge offshore discovery in Brazil’s Tupi oil field in the Santos Basin near Rio de Janeiro.  No joke, the loan been confirmed by the Wall Street Journal.

Angry yet?

It’s further along than we knew.  The U.S. Export-Import Bank told the Wall Street Journal it has issued a “preliminary commitment” letter to Petrobras in the amount of $2 billion dollars, which was fine.  Now the discussion has advanced at the presidential level to the possibility of increasing the amount.  Its not decided yet if the funds will come in the form of a direct loan or loan guarantees.

Meanwhile the U.S Treasury seems to need cash by the trillions of dollars.  Petrobras is one of the largest corporations in the western hemisphere. It’s also a pseudo national oil company or not depending on the circumstances.  Brazil is also in discussions with OPEC for becoming a new member.

On the other hand the guaranteed money for foreigner’s to drill for oil could well be a lever.  The disloyalty to America in the game to lease oil reserves could come back to haunt Obama.  It’s the simplest question – a favorite of children, dreaded by parents, if its OK for them why not the U.S.?  The offshore drilling ban lapsed last year in the midst of $4 gasoline.  Financing for those who would join OPEC seems the most completely wrong action possible.  Imagine if American oil companies lined up for loans, the hue and the cry would be deafening.

The Bush administration, (Miss them yet?) had a five year plan, no loans, by the way, to open the continental shelf for exploration plus getting on with leases in the Gulf of Mexico.  The environmentalists got a court to block drilling off Alaska.  Obama’s man Interior Secretary Salazar checked with an appeals court to see if that Alaska limit might be applied everywhere.  No, so for now the Gulf leases are back on.

It’s enough to drive a fuel consumer a little past crazy.  Spending money, other peoples’ money by the way, like stupefied drunks seems to be Congress’ main claim of accomplishments. Giving money to drill on another continent, to a prospective OPEC member with some yet to be seen sleight of the rules has to be the height of unimaginable stupidity.  No jobs, no taxes, no profits, nothing American in that, little or nothing to or for Americans in that.

Somehow I think Brazil can come up with financing or partners to get their deal done.  It’s certainly not in the interests of the American Public to be providing the capital.  Its things like this that cast serious doubt on the intentions of the White House.  Is it an American citizen there, or a “world citizen?”  One has the sense there is a certain “to hell with them” attitude about Americans in the White House now.

The contempt of Americans coming from the actions of the White House is adding up.  For all the super cool oratory, the facts of what’s happening are canceling it.

In still another hand . . .

Fred P. Hochberg, Chairman and President of the Export-Import Bank is saying, “Obama Underwrites U.S. Jobs.” All well and good, but his language belies the facts in his response.  The loan would “help,” it “increases the likelihood that American—not foreign— workers will be employed.”   Money isn’t something that can be simply not co-mingled; it’s the ultimate fungible item.

Until the Ex-Im Bank gets a deal that’s a guarantee vs. a direct loan, has a commitment from Brazil not to join OPEC and other smaller things like the money is used to buy American products the deal needs to be dead.

On the large scale this writer isn’t looking for a contest with Brazil.  But with the strange events in Ecuador vs. Chevron, the near total default by Argentina on its governmental obligations, the continuing trouble making by Chavez of Venezuela, exposure for an arm of the American people to engage so blindly seems to be a continuation of the same financial myopia that triggered the current recession.

Some alarming questions are on tap with the seemingly disconnected events.  If the Ex-Im Bank has already seen fit to guarantee business loans, a paltry $2 billion of a $175 billion five-year investment, just what does Adviser James Jones meeting with Brazilian officials have to do with the loan?  Are Mr. Hochberg and his bank about to be co-opted?  And just how is it that the custom of guarantees has become changed to a prospective direct loan?

It’s getting all very messy.  One wonders whom to trust. The obvious answer is trust no one, because when it comes to money in a foreign country, verification is not possible.  So Mr. Hochberg needs to buck it up, and get as far from this deal as possible.  When presidential advisors are talking with the government officials of your customer, you’re not doing what you think you are doing.  Or you’re going to be doing something you hadn’t expected.


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Ready to Kill People – It’s Not the Food vs. Fuel Fight

A local village chief of the Parakana people in the Amazon basin of Brazil said, “If the government don’t find a solution we will solve it ourselves. We know how to make poison arrows and we are ready to kill people.”

One might think it’s about the food vs. fuel fight, but its not, like the California Air Resources Board who is making policy based on falsehoods. It is about, as Greenpeace is also confirming, extensive settlement of squatters in the region (whose activities include cattle theft and slaughter), the existence of slave labor conditions, and intimidation by predatory farmers.  It’s a food fight indeed, but nothing like the press and media’s misrepresentation of the facts. It’s stealing the land use, the livestock, crops and even people.  And the developed world’s press and media then government followers who’re thinking its ethanol that’s leading to regulations that are completely in error.

Greenpeace has also revealed a primary cause of deforestation, it’s that newly deforested areas are converted to cattle pasture, which then becomes rapidly overrun by the native grasses unsuitable for cattle grazing.  The squatter farmers do not have the land management techniques or the herbicides to maintain the grass quality, requiring them to clear more forest to feed the cattle. It’s a forest to cattle to grass to forest cycle.  Decades are needed, lifetimes for the indigenous people.  And they are willing to fight and kill.

DTN, the agricultural news service, reporting in depth on actual land use change in Brazil, said that “Amazon deforestation has fallen for the past five years, from 10,588 square miles in 2004 to 4,620 square miles last year, according to figures from Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE).”  The satellite photos are likely quite accurate and the drop, now off by more than 50% must give everyone but the criminal element much relief.

Indirect Land Use Change models suggest that increased ethanol production in the U.S. should lead to increased Amazonian deforestation. Kieran Gartlan, DTN’s South American Correspondent, reports that a “recent study by the Imazon research group showed that only 4 percent of the Amazon, or 50 million acres, has recognized land title. Around 32 percent has already been invaded illegally, while 43 percent is protected in the form of national parks and Indian reserves.”  The models are now blown as falsehoods.  The real numbers could allow that a part of the 4 percent of titled land might be ethanol production, even though that would be some form of overstatement.

Gartlan also reports, “A study carried out by the Soybean Work Group earlier this year showed that of 630 samples of deforested areas since July 2006 only 12 had gone to soybeans and 200 to cattle. The remaining 418, or 70 percent, were unused indicating that the main reason for cutting down trees was for timber and land grabbing.”

And many believed that ethanol was the bad actor – while its not.  What markets are getting served is beef for people and timber for constructing wood products.  Not a fuel in sight other than the soy oil that could be biodiesel but much more likely sold for cooking oil.  Corn and sugar cane are not even mentioned for the area.

This isn’t new news either.  Last June Greenpeace reported with the UK’s Guardian from a three-year investigation revealing extensive “laundering” of cattle raised on deforested rainforest in the Amazon. The Guardian reported on the Espiritu Santo farm, which claimed that it was observing Brazilian law that requires cattle ranches to maintain 80 percent of lands in the Amazon region under forest cover.

A Greenpeace-Guardian examination of GPS and satellite data showed that only 20 to 30 percent of the Espiritu Santo farm is under forest cover. According to the Guardian, the “Greenpeace report identifies dozens of farms like Espirito Santo that Greenpeace says break the rules across Para and Mato Grosso to supply Bertin and other slaughter companies. Campaigners say there are probably hundreds or even thousands more.” Brazilian cattle processor Bertin reports blacklisting only 138 suppliers for irregular activities.

The Californian Air Resources Board regarding Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) would shift some of the blame to U.S. ethanol producers.  That is an effort based on those models mentioned above.  Amazing!  This all got going based on a controversial study published in Science Magazine by environmentalist Tim Searchinger. The “study” introduced the innocuous four-letter acronym ILUC, or Indirect Land Use Change.  According to ILUC theory, corn used for ethanol production cuts into American grain exports and thus provides a bigger market for competitors such as Brazil. This in turn leads to deforestation as Brazil expands its grain production to feed larger exports.  Not so and proven false, for more than a year.

Then last month the California Air Resources Board voted to include an ILUC penalty for biofuels when scoring greenhouse-gas emissions as part of its Low Carbon Fuel Standard.  Falsehoods, faked up theories taking money from consumers now -are real.

Then this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency included ILUC provisions in its rulemaking for the second Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2). This is despite the fact there is still no universally accepted science or economic model to accurately measure ILUC.  Daftness knows no limitations, especially when public perceptions from a lie lead to lazy policy making hoping for good public relations no matter the economic cost.

So the hard facts are very different.  U.S. corn exports have not been impacted by ethanol production and have remained between 1.5 billion and 2.5 billion bushels for the past ten years while soybean exports reached record levels last year.  There’re the facts that kill a theory.  Very simple.

What’s actually going on has nothing to do with food, fuel or even beef.  It’s about the money.  “There is a big financial incentive to invade public land and claim possession,” said John Carter a rancher from San Antonio, Texas, who moved to the northeast of Mato Grosso 13 years ago with his Brazilian wife, “Once trees are cleared value increases 10 fold, and this is happening on a huge scale, independent of what fuel they are using in the U.S.”

This isn’t the first time, in 2006, when Greenpeace falsely accused soybean farmers of “eating up the Amazon,” long after the soybean boom had ended, trading companies agreed to a self-imposed moratorium, committing not to purchase soybeans from newly deforested areas. With the soybean area in retraction it was an easy promise to keep.

But the lie won’t die, so now the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. EPA are making stupid policy and making up regulations on a complete falsehood.

Models, assumptions, policy, and regulations – it will be a wonder if anything good gets to consumers for new energy and fuels.   Many people think that the worst of press and media machinations were back in the days of Hearst and making little wars.  But today the muckraking press is still at its game, gathering eyes and ears for the latest lie to show advertising.

Geesh.  And it will never end – as long as people look and listen.

Science Magazine, models are not facts.  It’s now at the point where a model is becoming a disqualifier in my mind, a sure trigger for full throttle skepticism, cynicism and suspicion.  That’s a pity because good modeling built on facts is intensely useful way of saving a great amount of time and money.  But way too much modeling is done on assumptions where the nefarious can hide their agenda and harm us all.

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