Monday, 3 May 2010

Maryland researchers turn poplar trees into biofuel

In response to a national call for homegrown, Earth-friendly fuels to fill Americans' gas tanks, a couple of University of Maryland researchers are planting trees.Fuel derived from the hardy, fast-growing common poplar could eventually replace some of the billions of gallons of petroleum-based fuel now pumped a year, say biologist Gary Coleman and engineer Ganesh Sriram, who have partnered to help turn the woody plant into a widely used biofuel."Oil is a finite resource," said Coleman, a professor of plant science in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. "I don't think there is any doubt in 10 years people will be using advanced biofuels."The Obama administration has made development of biofuels a priority, citing the national security and environmental concerns with petroleum-based fuel — a problem driven home by the devastating oil spill along the Gulf Coast. The president toured the Midwest last week to tout renewable energy development, and the U.S. government already has mandated that biofuel production reach 36 billion gallons by 2022, tripling current levels.Most biofuel now comes from corn in the form of ethanol, which is added to gasoline to increase its octane and decrease its harmful emissions. But the government is moving away from corn kernels, a food source, and has called for at least 60 percent of new biofuel to be derived from other sources.A portion will come from cellulosic, or fiber-based, biofuel — the kind that comes from trees. To that end, millions in federal funds have been dedicated to research and processing plant construction.Globally, other crops such as sugar are used to make biofuel. And more, including willow trees, algae and switchgrass, are in the race with poplars to become the next viable crop. But the government and scientists see poplars as having an edge because they naturally grow to about 70 feet in five or six years and grow just about anywhere.Sugar, used to make biofuel in Brazil, for example, is sensitive to the cold in much of the United States.Poplars would use up land, too, but not as much as corn and not in place of food crops, said Sriram, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the A. James Clark School of Engineering. Poplars, also called cottonwood or aspen, already are farmed, but for paper and timber."The scientific community already decided that poplars would make a good biofuel," Sriram said. "It's been studied since the '70s."But after the 1970s oil crisis ended and gas prices dropped, so did the sense of urgency and research dollars, he said. Enough technology developed to turn trees into ethanol for use as a gas additive, but there's a lack of infrastructure and the cost would be high.New research aims to make a cheaper and more advanced biofuel that could replace gasoline. Making that possible is a $3.2 million grant the researchers recently won from the National Science Foundation's Plant Genome Research Project, which funds work on plants that have potential economic and agricultural importance.Also helping is the recent completion of the tree's genome by the scientific community. The complete tree map allows the researchers to identify and manipulate thousands of specific genes in their quest to understand and improve poplars' use of nitrogen, a key factor in the life cycle of the tree.The plants store nitrogen in their branches in winter and send it back to the leaves in the spring. If researchers can make a tree cycle the nitrogen more efficiently, it will grow faster and use less fertilizer, a major cost saving."The more efficient we make the process, the more economical this will be," Coleman said. "But we're not there yet."The trees would also absorb carbon as they grow, offsetting emissions from poplar-based fuel, he said.Once the researchers perfect the cycle, they will hand off the job of making fuel to others.As this is happening over the next decade, officials at the Department of Energy will move forward on other fronts. They expect that in a couple of years, ethanol from nonfood sources such as trees, grasses, algae, and forestry and crop waste will replace much of the corn-based fuel and the amount added to gasoline will be increased.Ethanol is not likely to replace petroleum because, unlike advanced biofuels, it would require its own delivery system and modified cars to run on it, said Valerie Sarisky-Reed, acting program manager for the Energy Department's Biomass Program.But ethanol will remain important in the short term as an additive that helps the environment and expands the petroleum-based fuel supply, she said. And it will remain important in the long term because a recent government study predicted those advanced biofuels will only be able to replace about a third of the transportation fuel used in the United States in the coming decades

Meanwhile, financing technology development and processing plants will remain a challenge, Sarisky-Reed said. The private sector will be reluctant to invest in unproven technologies and the government has limits.She also acknowledged critics who fear growing genetically modified crops for fuel will squeeze out traditional crops and have unknown consequences. The government has policies to try to prevent their spread, but she said that modifying crops to use less water and fertilizer is desirable. (The Maryland professors now destroy all of the trees they grow in labs for research.)"Cost is the major drawback here," she said. "Petroleum has plenty of years on us. The technology is coming along, but it's difficult for industry to get financing for technology that is not tested."An official at the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents the U.S. ethanol industry, agreed and said the economic downturn has made financing even tougher. Spokesman Matt Hartwig said the Department of Energy needs to do more.Hartwig said corn-based ethanol plants can be altered to accommodate fuel from cellulosic sources such as trees more cheaply than building new plants. Once the woody material is broken down into sugar it is fermented and turned to fuel, like sugar from corn. But it would still be a gamble since there aren't developed markets.Some members are forging ahead with new plants, however, for the environment and for their own future bottom lines, he said. Others will follow when costs decline."This will all happen in phases," he said. "A few million gallons are being produced at various demonstration and pilot plants across the country. It's not a lot, but once it's proven then others will look at how to scale that up to 50 million or 100 million. The average corn-based ethanol plant produces an average of 100 million gallons a year."In that same time, Americans will use 130 billion gallons of gasoline.

Westpac first to offer carbon trading

Source: ONE NewsWestpac bank
Westpac says it is cutting through the green tape surrounding emissions trading and offering solutions to help the transition to a low carbon economy.
The bank has written to representatives of the local forestry industry to discuss the options around their carbon credits, which would then be packaged up to help large carbon-liable companies trade off their carbon debits.
Westpac is the first New Zealand bank to offer the service and the first major financial institution to get actively involved in the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme.
Lloyd Cartwright, managing director of Financial Markets NZ, says the bank is the first intermediary to enter the market beyond simply offering a broking service.
"This will provide the 'missing link' between smaller forestry companies with carbon credits on their books who are looking to monetise them now and corporate entities who need to acquire larger volumes of carbon credits to manage their liability," he says.
He says the process will foster the creation of an actual market price for New Zealand units (NZUs).
Westpac has a specialised Carbon Trading Team, based in Wellington, and says this is the next step to developing practical products and solutions.

Westpac New Zealand is working towards its own carbon reduction target of 20% by 2012.
In December 2008, Westpac New Zealand became the first bank in the world to attain the internationally recognised carbon emission reduction standard - CEMARS.

Plans for wave energy test site revealed

28/04/2010 - 14:23:41Plans were revealed today for the development of a national wave energy test site off Annagh Head, west of Belmullet, Co. Mayo.The plans were announced by the Ocean Energy Development Unit (OEDU) of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI)."A full scale wave energy test site, if developed, will allow for the testing and demonstrating of new wave energy technologies and determine the potential for Ireland’s ocean resources to generate electricity," a statement said.SEAI is working with the Marine Institute and ESBI as project partners for the proposed research site. The purpose of the national wave energy test site at Belmullet is to provide a location for the temporary mooring and deployment of wave energy machines, so that their performance in generating electricity and their survivability can be tested in open ocean conditions.It is proposed for the site to operate for up to 15 years. The plans were unveiled at an information day at the civic offices in BelmulletRead more:

Norway delays Mongstad Carbon Capture and Storage project

Gwladys Fouche
Sun May 2, 2010 7:23am EDT

OSLO (Reuters) - Norway said it would delay the decision to finance a top carbon capture project to 2014, after the life of the present parliament, in a major setback for a technology seen as key to mitigate climate change.
Building a Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) facility at Mongstad in western Norway was proving too complex to do on schedule, said Oil and Energy Minister Terje Riis-Johansen.
"Given the big challenges we are facing in making the project good enough on an industrial scale, I don't think it is defensible to plan for an investment decision before 2014," he said.
The move means the present majority in parliament, which is to stand until 2013 and supports the Mongstad project, would not be able to take a decision on financing the scheme.
"The best evaluations now is that we need another four years after that," Riis-Johansen told state broadcaster NRK late on Saturday.
The decision is a setback for the development of a technology that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said could help mitigate global climate change.
CCS may cut the contribution of coal and gas-fired power plants to global warming by trapping and burying the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), but it is untested on a commercial scale.
The Mongstad project, developed by oil firm Statoil, was seen as one of the first to start full-scale operation.
It is also a prestige project for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who once called it Norway's "moonlanding" project.
Some environmentalists condemned the government's decision as "a scandal".
"This is an environmental policy scandal, the worst one I have seen in my ten years in the Norwegian green policy debate," said Marius Holm, deputy leader of green group Bellona.
"It feels like being stabbed in the back," he told NRK.
(Editing by Mike Nesbit)

US energy sector reform to be affected by Louisiana oil spill

Proposed major reform of the US energy sector could be sidelined by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

By Alex Spillius in New York
Congressmen have signalled that they are considering withdrawing tentative support for the White House’s climate plans, which seek to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, because they currently includes offshore exploration plans.
A number of Democrats are among those threatening to take back their support, including two of New Jersey’s congressmen and both of its senators.

“I think that’s dead on arrival,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, one of the states whose coastlines will be affected by the disaster.
The proposals could eventually become a bill, which is expected to be sponsored by Democrats and Republicans. They have already been watered down from an earlier version and were already not certain to pass Congress in their current form, as there is stiff opposition to proposed limits on carbon emissions within the legislature.
The proposals aim to cut US production of greenhouse gases to 17 per cent less than 2005 levels by 2020, and would also expand domestic production of oil, natural gas and nuclear power.
President Barack Obama has already made a considerable concession to the petroleum industry when he recently opened up 500,000 sq miles of America’s coastal waters to oil exploration, reversing a campaign promise in the process.
Though no further drilling had yet been approved, the White House has now emphasized that none will be until a thorough examination of what went wrong on the BP field has been carried out.
With the crisis escalating, environmental groups said the likelihood of further offshore exploration decreased by the day.
“When you’re trying to resurrect a climate bill that’s face-down in the mud and you want to bring it back to life and get it breathing again, I don’t think you can have offshore drilling against the backdrop of what’s transpiring in the Louisiana wetlands,” said Richard Charter, energy adviser to Defenders of Wildlife, an ecological campaign group.
“I think it’s flat-lined.”
David Jenkins, a spokesman for Republicans for Environmental Protection, said the politics were “changing by the minute” as the spreading slick threatens coastal states that traditionally support offshore drilling.
“If this plays out, how many politicians will be jumping up and saying they won’t vote for this because it doesn’t include offshore drilling?” Mr Jenkins said.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, however, said that he had not wavered in his support.
“We’ve had problems with car design, but you don’t stop driving,” he said.
A White House spokesman has said that Mr Obama remains committed, at least for now, to plans to expand drilling.

Is the Green party still anti-science?

We challenged the main political parties to answer key questions about their science policies. Here, Martin Robbins analyses the responses from the Green partyRead the Greens' answers in full here

Martin Robbins, Thursday 29 April 2010 15.48 BST

When we put questions to the parties ahead of the European elections last year, the Green party performed miserably, attracting considerable criticism for a range of policies from banning GM research to pushing alternative medicine for the treatment of cancer.
Since then, and in direct response to our criticism, more rational elements in the party have made an effort to reform policy in a number of areas to ensure that it has a scientific basis. Have their efforts paid off?
The Green party manifesto is considerably more polished than last year's, with a focus on radical left policies centred on community, "fairness" and of course the environment. Radical action on climate change is promised, with the party pushing for reductions in CO2 emissions of 10% a year, achieved mostly through punitive measures against businesses such as heavy taxation on water consumption and air travel.
In fact, reading their policies on climate is like being faced with a sort of "anti-Ukip", and in many ways – while well-intentioned – equally unrealistic.
On a more positive note, the Greens are excellent on drugs policy, and it is refreshing to see a party highlighting the issue of managing Britain's water supplies, a problem that is likely to loom much larger in the future.
So how do they score on our questions?
Brian Cox: Science funding
Do you plan to maintain Britain's science budget below the European average?
The Greens admit, refreshingly, that they don't yet know what they would spend on scientific research, and focus instead on a "radical commitment" to jobs in high-tech manufacturing and research as part of their wider, ambitious plans to reshape the economy into a nicer, greener form. This isn't an analysis of economic policy, which I suspect is a good thing for the Greens, but certainly they appear to understand the importance of science and technology to Britain's future prosperity.
Alternative medicine
If the balance of evidence suggests that a treatment does not perform any better than placebo, should it be supported by the NHS?
In a welcome U-turn since last year, Redding states that, "Our policy is that any medicine or treatment available on the NHS should be backed up by scientific evidence." Their manifesto uses rather more compromising language, likely reflecting the internal debates in the party over this policy over the past year, pledging to, "make available on the NHS complementary medicines that are cost-effective and have been shown to work." Which is pretty much none of them.
Interestingly, they also seek to reform the labelling of medicines, with a pledge to make sure they carry an accurate list of all ingredients. Presumably homeopathic remedies would carry a blank label.
Simon Singh: Libel reform
What will your party do to reduce the chilling effect of our libel laws on science? Currently there is no statutory public interest defence, so scientists risk running the gauntlet of London's High Court if they publish material they believe to be in the public interest, but that a major corporation or litigious charlatan believes to be libellous.
Party leader Caroline Lucas is herself a signatory to the Libel Reform Campaign pledge, so no problems here.
Climate change/Energy
Should nuclear power be part of our country's strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions? How soon can we bring new plants online?
The Greens energy policy is noble, and I would love to believe that it could happen, but the idea of making a 65% cut in CO2 emissions by 2020 through energy efficiency and renewable energy projects alone seems far-fetched. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, the Greens' dislike for nuclear energy is ideological, but both parties would benefit from presenting a clearer, realistic analysis of how such ambitious targets would be achieved.
David Nutt: Drugs policy
To what extent should drug policy be based on scientific evidence? What evidence, if any, would you require to declassify a drug?
Drug policy is the highlight of the Green manifesto, and by far their strongest policy area. Their approach is based on the recognition that drug harm is ultimately a public health problem, not a criminal issue. The Greens also understand that prohibition itself can cause harm, which logically leads to an evidence-based policy of weighing up "any possible health risks from a particular substance against the social harm of criminalising, for example, millions of cannabis users".
Campaigners have noted that the Greens, and the Lib Dems, have slightly watered down some of their views on drug policy for their manifestos.
They should trust the public and be bold.
Animal testing
Is animal testing necessary? Are the ethical concerns outweighed by the benefits? How would you like to see regulations on animal testing change under your government, if at all?
The same can't be said for their policies on animal testing, which remain an unmitigated disaster.
While we're all entitled to our ethical opinions, the party continues to make statements that are about as grounded in reality as Narnia, from the baseless assertion that animal testing somehow increases the risk of adverse reactions in medicine, to the persistent myth that researchers are not interested in better, cheaper alternatives.
There's also a worrying failure to understand that animal research is not simply used for drug testing, but is the foundation of basic biomedical research. Immunology would barely exist as a research discipline without a ready supply of lab mice. As blogger Gimpy puts it: "They have no understanding of scientific research or medicine."
Incidentally, the "independent patient safety organisation" referred to in the Greens' answer – the Safer Medicines Trust – lists Green party leader Caroline Lucas MEP among its patrons. Independent?
Petra Boynton: Public health
How will your party ensure public health/education campaigns are underpinned by evidence, and how will you evaluate their success? PR companies are increasingly influential in directing both the content and delivery of public campaigns, frequently at the expense of expertise from scientists, healthcare providers and academics.
"Campaigns should be piloted and evaluated, using comparative before-and-after surveys or other means of measuring public awareness, and rolled out to wider populations only if shown to be effective."
With this statement, the Greens join a rapidly emerging cross-party consensus on evidence-based public health campaigns.
Genetic engineering/Stem cell research
Should Britain be at the forefront of research in these areas? What benefits do you believe such research will bring for society?
Happy with stem cell research, the Greens maintain an ideological objection to GM crops. To be fair, they have made some progress since last year in distinguishing between GM crops and wider GM research, which they are happy to let continue. But as with animal testing, the party seems to be in thrall to scientifically illiterate activists.
There are of course some genuine concerns over the behaviour of companies like Monsanto, and there will always be a need to scrutinise claims made for new technologies, but increasingly elements of the Green movement – notably Greenpeace – have adopted a hysterical and unscientific tone on GM food that misinforms the public and prevents sensible debate. The party would do well to step back and engage with independent scientists to improve its understanding of current research.
Ben Goldacre: Pharmaceutical regulation
Do you believe pharmaceutical companies should be forced to publish all the research data they have on the potential benefits and harms of drugs they manufacture?
The Greens go further, and state that all scientific research institutions should publish all relevant research data – a nice idea in theory, although see the caveats I mentioned in my response to Ukip earlier in the week.
The declaration that in order to open up drug production in poorer nations "[drug design] information should be regarded as public property not commercial data" needs considerable clarification. Drug development may cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and Greens should aim to work with pharmaceutical companies to come up with something fair to all parties, rather than simply demanding that they hand over expensive commercial data to competitors.
Their policy in some areas is excellent, and it's tempting to be generous to the Greens. As a party they're well intentioned and admit that they are in the midst of a process of reform:
"We have recently completed a radical overhaul of our health policies which was extremely encouraging. This saw us adopt far stronger policies in areas like complementary therapies and stem cell research and we're intending to approach the science and technology chapters of our policies in the same constructive fashion."
Unfortunately that reform hasn't come quickly enough for this election, and it remains to be seen how entrenched the bad science in areas such as animal testing and GM really is. A lot of work still needs to be done to make the Green party electable on science issues, and it needs to engage with the scientific community to get a much more realistic and balanced understanding of modern science.
Progress has been made, and party members like Redding deserve respect for their achievements so far, but they have a long way to go.

Oil spill is BP's wake-up call

As more oil drifts towards the Mississippi delta, we must hope that BP questions its future dependence on fossil fuels

John Sauven, Friday 30 April 2010 15.03 BST
Soon after taking over in 2007, BP's newly appointed chief executive told an audience of business students at Stanford University that he thought too many people at the company were "trying to save the world". Tony Hayward's comments were intended to set the tone for his tenure at the helm of Britain's third largest company, but those words have returned to haunt him this week as BP struggles to contain one of the darkest chapters in its history.
His speech went down well. Hayward's focus on core values – on oil and gas as the only credible source of long-term profit – was a welcome relief to industry observers. His predecessor had made worrying statements about BP becoming an "energy company", able to exploit the anticipated growth in clean technology to deliver a business model suited to a carbon-constrained world.
The success of this strategy relies on acquiescence by political leaders in the countries in which BP operates. Under George Bush the need for lobbying muscle was minimal, but since the arrival of a new president in the White House, BP has poured millions into Washington, mainly through third-party lobby groups. Organisations such as the American Petroleum Institute, funded in part by BP, have done the company's dirty work for them. Supposedly spontaneous citizen demonstrations against climate legislation have sprung up around the US, before journalists revealed they were actually populated by employees of the oil companies themselves. The climate bill that had, until recently, a sliver of Republican support paid a heavy price for this cross-party endorsement in terms of funding for a series of environmentally dubious projects. The most controversial concession now looks almost certain to be reconsidered – the opening up of America's coastal waters to offshore drilling.
As officials in Louisiana begin to face the reality of the spill that has now reached their fragile coastline, many will be asking if BP did everything in its power to prevent this kind of accident. Reports this week suggest that last year a senior BP executive lobbied against mandatory safety codes for offshore drilling, arguing that the regulation would be too onerous and would slow down the construction of new rigs. Industry pressure had the desired effect, but it will be up to accident investigators to decide if a code could have helped avoid the initial explosion last week.
What BP will never admit, among their glossy corporate brochures and extensive environmental assessments, is that its entire business model is predicated on an ever increasing demand for oil, decades into the future. These growth predictions rely on a world in which there is no collective action to tackle global emissions, no concerted effort to transfer clean technology to the developing world, and almost no chance of maintaining anything like a stable climate.
As more oil drifts towards the critical wetlands of the Mississippi delta, we must hope that the more thoughtful members of BP's board will now feel obliged to question the wisdom of a strategy that is, at its core, unchanged since the opening decades of the 20th century.