Koreans patent seaweed to ethanol

The Korea Institute of Industrial Technology has filed an International patent application for a method of producing biofuel using sea algae.

This is the first time I’ve attempted to read a patent and I’ve got to tell you that most of it makes no sense whatsoever. However, some of it is in plain English.


The present invention relates to a method of producing biofuel, more specifically a method of producing biofuel comprising the steps of generating monosugars from marine algae, or from polysaccharides extracted from marine algae by treating the marine algae or the polysaccharides with a hydrolytic enzyme and/or a hydrolytic catalyst; and fermenting the monosugars using a microorganism to produce biofuel. The method of producing biofuel of the present invention solve the problem of raw material suppliance since it uses marine algae as a raw material for biomass, and reduce the production costs by excluding lignin eliminating process that has been required by the conventional method using wood-based raw materials, resulting in economic and environmental advantages.

Description of the Related Art

Compared with other type of land biomass, marine algae are growing very fast (4 – 6 harvest per year is possible in subtropic region) and easy to cultivate using wide arable area of the ocean without using high priced materials such as irrigation water, land, fertilizer, etc. Utilization of marine algae takes advantages of simple production processes for biofuel because it does not contain lignin that has to be eliminated. In addition, the amount of annual CO2 absorption ability of marine algae is 36.7 tons per ha, which is 5 – 7 times higher than that of wood-based. Therefore, if E20 (gasoline containing bioethanol by 20%) is used, the annual greenhouse gas reduction rate will be approximately 27%, which will reduce carbon tax approximately 300 billion Korean Wons, if converted into money value.

Sounds good to me as long as we don’t do the same thing to the oceans that palm oil plantations are doing to rain forests.

If you understand the technical aspects of this particular technology and can translate it into something most of us can understand you can find the patent here. Feel free to contact us with a translation.

Source: New Scientist


Australian Conference on Life Cycle Assessment

Thanks to Tom Worthington at Net Traveller for the following:

The Sixth Australian Conference on Life Cycle Assessment is in Melbourne from 16 to 19 February 2009. Life cycle assessment (LCA), assesses the environmental impacts of products and services. Unfortunately many people will not find out about this worthwhile event, due to the poor web site, so I have extracted some details below to make them more accessible.

From the Conference Program:

One aim of the conference is to build bridges between different environmental assessment methods that have a sustainability focus. This includes:

  • Life cycle assessment • Life cycle costing • Ecological footprints • Materials flow analysis
  • Triple bottom line accounting approaches • Energy and greenhouse life cycle studies
  • Input Output analysis • Uncertainty analysis in environmental assessment

The conference also aims to provide a forum for sharing LCA experience in different sectors such as:

  • Building applications
  • Waste Management
  • Water issues
  • Food and Agriculture
  • Energy and fuel production system
  • Products and packaging manufacture

Keynote Speakers

Andreas Ciroth studied Environmental Engineering in Berlin, Germany; his dissertation (Dr.-Ing.) in 2001 was on error propagation in LCA. Since
then, he has worked as a consultant and software developer, mostly in scientific projects. …

Stefanie Hellweg is Associate Professor for ecological systems design at the Institute of Environmental Engineering of ETH Zurich (Switzerland). …

Hongtao Wang College of Architecture and Environment, Sichuan University, Chengdu, China …

Bo Weidema has more than 30 years of experience in environmental issues, since joining the emerging environmental grassroots movements in 1972. …

For more information see the full summary at Net Traveller

Reading: Fuel for thought

While digging around the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) web site I discovered Fuel for thought, a publication by the Future Fuels Forum 2007. This June 2008 publication informs us how the Future Fuels Forum thinks transport fuels will pan out in our future with modelling from now to 2050.  It is an interesting document and I suggest you read it if you are at all interested in the future of transport fuels in Australia. Click the cover page below to download the PDF (1.5Mb).

challenges and opportunities (PDF)

CSIRO 2008: Fuel for thought - The future of transport fuels: challenges and opportunities (PDF)

Apart from being relatively easy to read and informative for those of us without a scientific or economic background it provides great insight into the conservative information upon which our governments are making decisions that impact your future and mine. It isn’t all conservative mind you. The modelling for a continuing rise in demand for oil and a sharp decline in supply shows we could pay as much as $8 per litre for petrol in the not too distant future and the authors do stress the urgency with which alternatives for oil must be found.

While the document was written before the global financial crisis really started to bite the bulk of it remains relevant. If you do read it I’d like to know what you think so please leave a comment.

CSIRO investigates energy efficiencies for Australian grain growers

CSIRO scientists have been investigating potential opportunities in energy efficiency, regional biodiesel self sufficiency and bioenergy production for Australian grain growers. The research is explained in an article entitled Bioenergy opportunities for grain growers in the December issue of Farming Ahead magazine.

The article explains that there is potential for Australian grain farms to improve energy efficiencies, become self-sufficient in biodiesel and use stubble for energy production. Nitrogen fertiliser was found to be the most energy-intensive input. When combined with diesel fuel use the two account for about 70 percent of total energy inputs when conventional farming methods are used. Amongst others, the researchers examined the use of crop rotation using legumes to replace nitrogen fertilisers and on-farm or regional biodiesel self sufficiency to remove the need for diesel use.

The article concludes that it is possible for grain farmers to significantly reduce their energy inputs but these reductions will require trade-offs in the amount of grain produced. The authors say it is physically possible for most grain farms to achieve self sufficiency in biodiesel but the economics of farm and regional scale biodiesel production are not favourable at the moment.

New Holland NH2 hydrogen fuel cell tractor

New Holland Agriculture has won a gold medal at the SIMA Innovation Awards 2009 for their NH2 hydrogen-powered tractor. The NH2 is a key element in New Holland’s Energy Independent Farm concept, a project that hopes to free farmers from the cost of purchased fossil-fuel and allow them to achieve fuel autonomy.

Based on the popular T6000, the experimental NH2 tractor replaces the internal combustion engine with hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity, which drives electric motors to power the tractor. The NH2 tractor is a 120hp working prototype able to perform all the tasks of a T6000, while operating virtually silently and emitting only water.

New Holland NH2

New Holland NH2

The Energy Independent Farm concept envisages farmers producing their own compressed hydrogen from water, using a process called electrolysis or directly from methane by burning waste or biomass. Production systems would be powered by wind farms or solar panels and the hydrogen would be stored at the farm in underground tanks.

New Holland believe farmers are in a unique position to benefit from hydrogen technology. They have the space to install alternative electricity generation systems, such as solar, wind, biomass or waste plants, and then store that power as hydrogen. Apart from the environmental benefits, such a system would allow farmers to become energy independent and improve their financial stability, as fuel costs form a significant proportion of their operating costs.

Source: New Holland Agriculture (UK)

The state of ethanol

On the 6th of December 2008 the New South Wales State Government announced that they will triple the existing 2 percent ethanol fuel mandate in the next two years and mandate a 10 percent ethanol blend (E10)  in all regular grade unleaded petrol (RON 91 – 93) by 1 July 2011. They will also introduce a 2 percent biodiesel mandate. Apparently higher octane unleaded petrol will not require ethanol content.

This announcement has been welcomed by the ethanol producers that supply NSW fuel companies. It has also been welcomed by NSW grain growers as it gives them another market for their product. However, it hasn’t pleased everyone. There was even some desperate rearguard action in State Cabinet to defeat the Government’s plans to mandate the use of ethanol in petrol.

The Service Stations Association is concerned that because there is only one ethanol producer in NSW (Manildra) the mandate will give that producer “a blank cheque in setting prices”.

The Australian Lot Feeders’ Association is concerned that the mandate  “will increase grain and food prices for negligible environmental, fuel security or regional development benefit”. Australian Pork Limited are equally concerned for the same reasons.

Even the NSW Farmers’ Association, who you would expect to fully support the mandate, was cautioning that market forces, not Government intervention, should determine the percentage of ethanol in petrol.

While all this was hitting the news stands there was an explosion at the Manildra ethanol distillery at Nowra on the South Coast of New South Wales.

Manildra ethanol distillery

Manildra ethanol distillery: Michael Carter

According to the Manildra web site the distillery converts industrial grade wheat flour into its primary products of protein and carbohydrate. A by-product of the carbohydrate production is ethanol. The distillery was opened in 1992 to supply the the beverage, food, pharmaceutical, personal care, ink, cleaning and hygiene, surface coating and explosive industries. Production has been increased to meet the growing, and now mandated, demand for ethanol blended fuel.

One thing is certain. The use increased of grain in the production of ethanol, even if the ethanol is a by-product, is going ensure the fuel vs. food debate continues. This will no doubt be enhanced by the announcement that the Dalby Bio-Refinery in Southern Queensland has started processing sorghum and should be at full ethanol production by the end of January 2009.

Another debate that is ongoing is whether running your vehicle on E10 actually saves you money. Ethanol contains less energy than unleaded petrol so there is a price/performance trade off. A trial by Drive.com.au indicates that at current prices E10 may be cheaper but you need to buy more of it to travel the same distance. So much more that running E10 costs you more than running your car on regular unleaded.

Of course there is also the life-cycle emissions associated with first generation ethanol production that further complicate the picture. Ethanol producers paint their product in a very green light. Check out the Enhance Ethanol site to see what I mean. Enhance Ethanol is the name Manildra have given their ethanol. The benefits outlined on the Enhance Ethanol site are in stark contrast to some research that shows first generation ethanol lags behind fossil fuels when you include the emissions from farm machinery, fertilisers and processing. However, you can also find research that presents the opposite conclusion. One thing all the research appears to agree on is that the life-cycle emissions from second generation ethanol (cellulosic ethanol) are far lower than those of the ethanol we are currently using in transport fuels.

That all leaves me quite uncertain about the benefits of mandating ethanol in fuel until cellulosic ethanol production is viable in Australia.

Tallow based biodiesel is bad policy

Tallow and its uses

Tallow is a fat produced by the Australian meat industry. Like other edible fats, it is an essential ingredient that has been in use for well over 100 years. Australia produces approximately 500,000 tonnes of tallow annually, of which approximately 150,000 tonnes is used domestically in food, soap and derivatives. The balance is exported to countries including China, South Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Sub-Continent for similar applications. In all these applications, tallow can be directly replaced with palm oil.

Environmental impact

The previous Australian Government’s decision to subsidise the use of tallow and other edible oils for the production of biodiesel is bad policy for the environment, rain forests and biodiversity.

Palm plantations on average produce three tonnes of oil per hectare per year. If 300,000 tonnes of Australian tallow is converted to biodiesel to help meet the previous Government’s renewable fuels target an additional 100,000 hectares (1000 square kilometres) of palm oil plantation will be needed to make up the short fall. This has and will continue to contribute to deforestation in South East Asia.

The affect of the Government’s subsidy

Under current legislation, biodiesel producers are able to claim back $0.38 per litre for each litre of biodiesel produced and sold. This legislation gives one industry group, the biodiesel producers, a very large relative subsidy allowing them to out-bid traditional industry users that are not subsidized.

Consumers are unlikely to stop eating or washing, hence the non-subsidized industries will be forced to use palm oil as a cheaper alternative to tallow.

A sensible Government policy

Biodiesel came into existence in commercial quantities in Europe almost 20 years ago, as part of European agriculture policy. Europe had excess agricultural land and most European governments were paying farmers not to grow crops as a means of cutting production. Farmers received a subsidy not to grow food on a certain portion of their land – “set aside land”.

To keep farmers employed governments in the major agriculture producing countries such as France and Germany introduced excise rebates for companies producing biodiesel from rape seed oil that could be grown on “set aside land”.

Germany has recently put legislation in place specifically excluding soya bean and palm oil as acceptable raw materials for biodiesel. This has been a response to the growing global pressure to address the issues of “oil from food” and the wider environmental impact of “oil from forests”.

The current Australian government would do well to modify current legislation to exclude tallow and palm oil as acceptable raw materials for biofuels for the same reasons.

Allister Tomkins
Executive Director
Symex Holdings Ltd