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Cooperation on Biofuels Increasing between Brazil and US

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With the US ending both the tariff on imported ethanol and the tax credit for domestic blenders, cooperation between the US and Brazil on biofuel technology is increasing, as well as efforts to trade renewable fuels on global markets. (See my post at the end of last year)

Yes, we need to be ever vigilant on the possible effects of increased biofuel production on food availability and prices as well as on land use, soil and water quality, and related issues. In my doctoral dissertation, however, I examined these issues in depth and contend that increased production can occur along with protection of ecological health.

The cooperation discussed in the article below can lead to greater efficiency of renewable fuel production, using less land and less water to produce more fuel.

Energy is fundamental to economic growth, and as countries in Latin America and Africa increase their ability to produce renewable energy domestically, they create more jobs and better the lives of their people in ways that will improve economic as well as environmental conditions for generations. These are undoubtedly positive.

It is a fascinating time to be alive.

Insight: U.S. and Brazil – At last, friends on ethanol

A gas station worker fills a car's tank with ethanol in Rio de Janeiro April 30, 2008. Brazil is the world's largest producer and exporter of ethanol. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

By Brian Winter

BRASILIA | Fri Sep 14, 2012 11:21pm IST

(Reuters) – After years at each other’s throats, Brazil and the United States are working together to promote the use of ethanol in a collaboration that could revolutionize global markets and the makeup of the biofuel itself.

The breakthrough came in January when Washington allowed a three-decade-old subsidy for U.S. ethanol producers to expire and ended a steep tariff on foreign biofuels. The tariff, in particular, had poisoned diplomatic relations between the world’s top two ethanol-producing countries for years.

Continue reading this article here.

Algae May Be the Future of Biofuels, but it’s a Distant Future

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This is promising. Whatever we may say about Monsanto (read more here), there are some smart people working there, and their investment in technology to use algae for biofuels shows there is some real promise in those efforts. The innovation needed to make this technology energy efficient and cost effective, however, is a long way off.

Cellulosic biofuels from crops with which we have great experience, such as corn and grasses, continues to face considerable barriers. First, while we have known for millennia how to ferment 6 carbon sugars such as glucose,we lack the experience and an efficient method to ferment the diverse, 5 and 6 carbon sugars in cellulose. To complicate matters further, unlike the sugars in cane or in the carbohydrates in corn, the sugars in cellulose are mixed in with lignin, the stiff, woody parts of plants that give them their structure.

Sapphire energy, the company discussed in the article below, will not likely ferment the sugars for fuels like ethanol, but will extract the oil to make diesel fuel. This process still faces barriers as formidable as those I discuss above, plus the added disadvantage that we don’t have proven methods to grow, harvest, and process algae efficiently.

You might be thinking, ‘the pond near our backyard grows tons of algae and we don’t even want it, how hard can it be?’ When we’re trying to grow enough to be used to power cars and planes, and in a small space with limited inputs of water and other form energy, it gets trickier.

It will take time to develop the methods to do all of this. It can be done, but let’s not figure that developments such as this give us license to continue using fossil fuels with our present, reckless abandon.

Innovation, yes, efficiency always.

Monsanto Backs Algae Startup Sapphire Energy

content by earth2tech

By Katie Fehrenbacher at Earth2Tech

Tue Mar 8, 2011 11:07am EST

Agriculture and genetics giant Monsanto has made its bet on algae. On Tuesday Monsanto announced that it has made an equity investment in, and developed a partnership with, algae startup Sapphire Energy.

Founded in 2007, Sapphire Energy uses synthetic biology to make a green crude out of algae that can be turned into gas, diesel or jet fuel. Monsanto wants access to Sapphire’s genetic research technology to use it for its own agricultural development. Using Sapphire’s genetic technology, Monsanto can isolate traits in algae (like high yields and stress traits) that could be used to tweak other crops. Monsanto’s CTO Robb Fraley said in a release that algae is an “excellent discovery tool,” for agricultural genetic research.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

March 20th, 2011 at 10:52 am

More Advancements in Cellulosic Biofuels

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Government investments in cellulosic biofuels may be paying off.

Not only do these advances move us closer to using grasses and other crops that require less water and fertilizer and compete less with food, it also moves us closer to the advanced biofuels that, unlike ethanol, can be used as drop in replacements for gasoline (read more here).

We need to combine these advancements with further efforts in conservation and efficiency, or we risk converting so much of the Earth’s biomass to serving human uses that we will decrease biodiversity to the extent that we risk further ecological collapse.

This doesn’t just diminish our ability to go camping in pretty places, it also threatens our supply of essential resources such as clean, healthy water and soil.  I like to go camping, but I like eating and drinking healthy food and water even more. They’re really important, and clearing diverse forests and prairies so we can plant crops such as grasses, whether for fuel, food, fiber, or feed, poses risks to water and soil.

Energy Department Announces New Advance in Biofuel Technology

Highlights Opportunity to Reduce America’s Oil Dependence and Create Jobs in Rural America

March 07, 2011

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu today congratulated a team of researchers at the Department’s BioEnergy Science Center who have achieved yet another advance in the drive toward next generation biofuels: using bacteria to convert plant matter directly into isobutanol, which can be burned in regular car engines with a heat value higher than ethanol and similar to gasoline. This research is part of a broad portfolio of work the Department is doing to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and create new economic opportunities for rural America.

[…]

Secretary Chu added that: “America’s oil dependence—which leaves hardworking families at the mercy of global oil markets—won’t be solved overnight. But the remarkable advance of science and biotechnology in the past decade puts us on the precipice of a revolution in biofuels. In fact, biotechnologies, and the biological sciences that provide the underlying foundation, are some of the most rapidly developing areas in science and technology today – and the United States is leading the way. In the coming years, we can expect dramatic breakthroughs that will allow us to produce the clean energy we need right here at home. We need to act aggressively to seize this opportunity and win the future.”

Read the entire article here.

Biofuels Are Not Limited to Corn Ethanol

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It’s true that if we attempt to meet George Bush’s Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) (36 Bgals of renewable fuels by 2022) only with corn ethanol, food prices will rise as a result. But, as has been written before on this site, the rise in food prices in 2008 had more to do with petroleum prices than with ethanol.

So, if we fail to diversify our energy matrix, food prices and much of the economy as a whole will be subject to the high volatility in petroleum prices. Developing other ways of fueling our transportation fleets, and reducing the amount we transport ourselves and our goods, will go much further in terms of protecting ourselves from this volatility than will eliminating our biofuels efforts.

I’m not a proponent of corn ethanol, but I am a big proponent of objective, accurate information. So it’s also important to note that the RFS caps corn ethanol at 15B gals in 2015 (we’re now producing about 12B gals/yr). That’s still a lot, and I’m not convinced it’s a great idea, but, ceteris paribus (it means, all things being equal–Latin is fun), food prices will not likely rise much more due to corn ethanol. The rest of the biofuels we produce to meet those federal standards are supposed to come from grasses, trees, and agriculture residues. There’s still plenty that can go wrong with that, but other issues aren’t addressed in the article below, so I’ll end here.

Thanks for reading.

ps, I both dig and am disturbed by getting information from a source that provides news only if I can profit from it.

January 28, 2011

By Kerri Shannon, Associate Editor, Money Morning

U.S. Clean Energy Investment Puts Upward Pressure on Rising Food Prices

In U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday, he highlighted clean energy investment as a key component of America’s future, one that will be reflected in his budget proposal for fiscal 2012.

“With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015,” the president said in his speech to members of Congress. “[I]nstead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.”

This commitment to clean energy investment increases the importance of biofuels like ethanol, made from corn and other agricultural products. About 40% of U.S. corn is used to make ethanol, and increased ethanol production leads to higher corn and food prices.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

January 31st, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Biofuels Beyond Ethanol

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Here are a couple of interesting articles about the next generations of biofuels.

The first two sentences of the first article below are priceless, and quite correct. As expected, the article in The Economist is excellent. It’s not exactly cutting edge, as these technologies have been discussed for well over a year, and it doesn’t look like we’re a whole lot closer now.

As I said in that post above over a year ago, when these fuels do become cost effective and energetically efficient, we will need to be very careful about converting more land to monocultures to produce biomass as feedstocks for these fuels.

The Worldwatch article below addresses this issue obliquely with its hopeful look at algae as a feedstock. We face some of the same problems with algae as we do with cellulosic bofuels–trying to expose the diverse, 5 and 6 carbon sugars for fermentation–as well as the added difficulty in our lack of experience either growing or harvesting algae.

It’ll be a while before any of these are ready for your gs tank, but it’s encouraging that we’re thinking this far ahead.

It’s a fascinating time to be alive.

The future of biofuels

The post-alcohol world

Biofuels are back. This time they might even work

Oct 28th 2010 | London and san francisco

MAKE something people want to buy at a price they can afford. Hardly a revolutionary business strategy, but one that the American biofuels industry has, to date, eschewed. Now a new wave of companies think that they have the technology to change the game and make unsubsidised profits. If they can do so reliably, and on a large scale, biofuels may have a lot more success in freeing the world from fossil fuels than they have had until now.

[…]

That is a start, but it will not be enough, Wood is a possibility, particularly if it is dealt with chemically, rather than biologically (much of the carbon in wood is in the form of lignin, a molecule that is even tougher than cellulose). But energy-rich grasses look like the best bet. Ceres, which is based in Thousand Oaks, California, has taken several species of fast-growing grass, notably switchgrass and sorghum, and supercharged them to grow even faster and put on more weight by using a mixture of selective breeding and genetic engineering. Part of America’s prairies, the firm hopes, will revert to grassland and provide the cellulose that biofuels will need. The Energy Biosciences Institute that BP is funding at the University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign, is working on hybrid miscanthus, an ornamental grass that can produce truly remarkable yields.

Read the entire article here.

Third Time’s the Charm, or Three Strikes and You’re Out? Third-Generation Biofuels Are Here

Sam Shrank Revolt 2010-11-01

This entry is the latest in a series on innovations in the climate and energy world.

Ethanol from corn and sugar cane? Beyond passé at this point, with major environmental, land use, and food security concerns.

Second-generation biofuels, made from non-food crops and wastes? So 2008.

The next big thing in biofuels? Algae.

So-called third-generation biofuels have begun to receive serious attention. Biofuels can technically be made from just about any plant material, and some of the advantages of algae are obvious: it wouldn’t compete for arable land, for example, as it is grown in water, and it grows like, well, a weed, allowing for incredible yields.

The two avenues of third-generation development being considered so far are microalgae (pond scum, etc) and macroalgae (seaweed). Research is going into both harvesting algae from its natural environment and creating artificial growing environments.

Various algae have been discussed academically as a potential fuel since 1955. The U.S. Department of Energy has looked into fuels from microalgae since 1978, although the Aquatic Species Program, as it was called, was discontinued in 1996. Since then, various government bodies, including the Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and Department of Agriculture, have continued to look into algal biofuels.

Read this entire article here.

DOE Announces up to $11 Million for Biofuels Technology Development

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A colleague recently asked about the tradeoffs between ethanol and methanol, and why there isn’t more methanol in our fuel supply, given some of its purported benefits. I responded that that discussion is looking backwards at two less than ideal fuels, and that biomass-based drop in replacements for gasoline will most likely be available in not much more time than it would take to make a switch from ethanol to methanol.

There is already enough reluctance about ethanol, a fuel that has only about 70% the energy content by volume as gasoline and is not transportable within existing pipelines. Methanol has similar drawbacks, and, as the announcement below illustrates, government and industry both are looking at different technologies that will work with existing infrastructure, including pipelines and current engines.

The technology described below is thermo-chemical rather than biochemical. In other words, pyrolisis basically involves burning biomass to create a syngas that has different applications. This process is thermo-chemical, unlike fermentation used to produce ethanol and methanol, which involves live yeasts and is therefore bio-chemical.

These are the two main platforms that the DOE is pursuing in hopes of transitioning from petroleum, coal,  natural gas, and other fossil fuels, to renewable biomass energy for both our electrical grid and our transportation fuels.

There is much hope for these technologies, and many existing applications for both platforms, but don’t be misled, neither is a panacea for our energy needs. We will need to continue using fossil fuels for decades to come, and as technologies improve, solar, wind, geothermal, and, perhaps the most important and cost-effective, energy efficiency,  will all be important in our future energy matrix.

May 28, 2010

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced up to $11 million in funding over three years for research and development in the area of thermochemical conversion of biomass into advanced biofuels that are compatible with existing fueling infrastructure. The objective of this funding is to improve the conversion of non-food biomass to liquid transportation hydrocarbon fuels via pyrolysis, a process that decomposes biomass using heat in the absence of oxygen to produce a bio-oil that can be upgraded to renewable diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel. This funding opportunity is part of the Department’s effort to accelerate development and deployment of sustainable, renewable biofuels that significantly reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

May 28th, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Brazil: The Bossa Nova of Biofuels

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The transition to the bioeconomy is a fascinating topic. At a conference I helped to organize in St. Louis in 2008, the discussion was around refineries that use biomass as a feedstock, producing the wide range of products, including fuel, fiber, pharmaceuticals, and others currently delivered from petroleum refineries. It is unclear if or when such a transition will occur, but with volatile oil prices and the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico, it may be more appealing now than ever.

A new wave of investment will transform sugars and cellulosic carbohydrates into hydrocarbon fuels

By Biofuels Digest columnist Will Thurmond

Shell, BP, Bunge, LS9, Dow and Amyris are collectively investing more than $20 billion into advanced, sustainable biofuels in Brazil. This new relationship between Brazilian, US and EU public and private industries is kicking off a new era in international biofuels investment.

[…]

US And The EU Dance With Brazil

Another wave of next- generation renewable drop-in fuel companies Amyris, LS9, Gevo and Dupont are also investing in and partnering with Brazil’s sugarcane fermentation biorefineries. Why? Because their emerging technologies from cellulosic microbes (yeast, algae, fungus and bacteria) can use the same ethanol fermentation facilities in the US corn belt and in Brazil’s sugarcane belt to produce bio-crude, green diesel, petrol and biojet.

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Integrated Biorefineries In Sight

The future benefits of these integrated cellulosic biorefineries, especially in Brazil, will demonstrate leadership, proof of concept, and much-needed economic certainty that is challenged by US and EU cellulosic biofuels economics, mandates and markets today. This will benefit the other big emerging markets of China and India as the dance progresses. Long before the Olympics arrive in Rio in 2017,  Brazil’s leadership in sustainable biofuels, coupled with advanced technologies from US and EU industry partners, will illuminate evolutionary pathways in achieving successfully integrated, diversified, biorefineries.  In particular, India, the world’s second
largest sugar producer, and the world’s most populated nation, is most likely to benefit from this progress along with China and other key emerging market nations interested in attracting increased investment and emerging technologies for sustainable growth.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

May 26th, 2010 at 11:49 am

Citizen Cane: Is biofuels’ future in the fields of Brazil, or the fields of home?

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It’s odd that we didn’t think much of these cane workers for the centuries when we were importing Brazilian sugar, when conditions were undoubtedly much, much worse than they are today. This has been a more common topic in the news of the last few years.

Mr. Lane proposes a series of cogent arguments why the U.S. should be more self-reliant in terms of our energy use, and some rather dubious ones on why we should not rely on Brazil and why we do not yet have a cellulosic biofuels industry here in the U.S.

Maybe it’s simply because of the age of information: now we have immediate access to the stories of people in rural areas on the other end of the globe, and the internet provides the space to tell those stories. Maybe it’s because, unlike the diminutive domestic sugar market, the burgeoning biofuels market and the already powerful corn lobby provide much stronger motivations to investigate the downsides of corn ethanol’s far more efficient competitor.

Having just returned from three months working with the cane industry in Sao Paulo, which produces 60% of their cane and ethanol, I can say that cane cutting is brutally difficult work, but work done by choice in a place where hundreds of thousands of people have no access to anything safer, smoother, or that pays better. They are not slaves; they are poor, without access to education, and without other options.

Perhaps an even more pressing set of questions is what will happen to these workers, and the Brazilian bioenergy market as a whole, as the sector becomes increasingly more mechanized and much more efficient over the next five years. These hundreds of thousands of workers will almost all lose their jobs, with one tractor replacing 80 workers. But it will also create another 15-25 jobs that pay better, require more training, and are much safer.

The increasing access to education for workers, information for cane producers and ethanol refineries, and the capital flowing into the sector from Brazil and abroad will help to streamline cane and ethanol production, shed light on best, and worst, practices, improving the industry and increasing yields per unit of land.

Many producers making the move to mechanization have not yet adopted the changed planting patterns or harvest practices that will increase their yields dramatically. The Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC) a private research firm in Sao Paulo whose associates produce the majority of Brazilian cane, is constantly at work investigating best practices and disseminating them across larger and smaller producers around the country’s center-south region.

This brings us back to why so many people advocate increased importation of Brazilian ethanol, and why we don’t have a cellulosic biofuels industry here in the U.S.:  Brazilian ethanol is much, much more efficient. In the Global Market that Mr. Lane describes, unlike the Global Village, price is king. Unlike U.S. corn, which is the recipient of enormous subsidies and is protected by a $0.54 per gallon tariff, Brazilian cane and ethanol compete on the free market, with drivers of flex fuel vehicles making a choice at the pump based on which is cheaper, ethanol or gasoline.

Our lack of a cellulosic industry is not because of “fear of the unknown,” but simply because of feasibility. Cellulosic ethanol cannot come close to competing with cane ethanol, nor with petroleum, so it does not have a presence in the market.

Yes, we should foster research and development in domestic energy, and biomass-based biofuels will likely play a part in our energy independence, along with nuclear and domestic petroleum and, most important of all, energy efficiency. We need to use less energy if we want any hope of achieving energy independence.

So while I agree with Mr. Lane’s premises, the difference is in the details. Let’s strive to nurture our own domestic energy markets, but let’s be honest about how and why we do it.

by Jim Lane

“Let me tell a story ‘bout a man named Jed /
a poor mountaineer barely kept his fam’ly fed…”

By now, if you are a devotee of vintage TV or over the age of 40, you may well be humming along to the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies. The song told the story of how these comic hillfolk ended up owning a mansion in a swank part of Los Angeles, because of an oil strike on their land back home. It’s the dream of many of poor landowner for a long time now.

[…]

Cheap fuel! Cheap energy!

That’s what we want — or have wanted for a long, long time. Cheap fuel, and cheap food, and no questions asked.

So much of our cheap sugar comes from the cane fields of Brazil — for the Brazilians drove down the price with an efficiency that virtually extinguished the US sugarcane business. We don’t see the cane worker any more clearly than the Nigerian farmer.

We may tut-tut over reports of slavery in the industry when we see it flash across the Bloomberg Channel, or regret the conditions that every cane worker must experience, wielding a machete at high speed for hours, and days and years. The long years in the hot fields, the high prices in the company stores, the rude shacks used by the cane-workers — we might become agitated if we saw it, but we don’t see it, or rather we avert our minds rather than our eyes. It is the same with chicken farms or cattle feedlots — a 60 Minutes report might arouse our outrage for a day or two, and then we lapse into the old habit of taking the cheap price, and pushing inconvenient thoughts aside.

Read the entire article here.

Biofuels not to blame for high sugar prices, Brazil avers

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Brazilian ethanol has not often been included in the accusations regarding increased food prices usually aimed at the U.S. corn ethanol sector. While most of us aren’t concerned about a slight rise in the price of sugar, it has been an issue in Brazil, and it seems accurate to me to point to India’s immense decreases in sugar exports, especially to Europe, as much more of a culprit than the Brazilian bioenergy sector.

23rd April 2010

The biofuels industry cannot be blamed for the increase in the international sugar prices, states Brazilian Ambassador to South Africa José Vicente de Sá Pimentel.

He says that the current increase of the sugar price on the commodity market has mainly been caused by a reduction of international supply, especially in India. Indian sugar production, which is the second largest in the world, suffered a strong decline in 2009, owing to the reduction in planted areas and irregular rainfall.

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He stresses that, not only was there no reduction of the Brazilian sugar production, but there was also an increase in sugar exports. Brazil exported 19 721 t of sugar in 2008, which increased to 24 294 t in 2009.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

April 29th, 2010 at 6:30 pm

USDA Proposes Rules for Three Biofuels Programs

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It looks like the U.S. may not be content to let Brazil be the only producer of “advanced biofuels.”

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Invites Public Comment on Proposed Rules for USDA Renewable Energy Programs
WASHINGTON, April 16, 2010 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today invited public comment on several proposed rules designed to increase the production of advanced biofuels and the development of biorefineries. The programs are authorized under the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (The Farm Bill).

Read the entire article here.