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Italy Makes a Biofuel Breakthrough


Second generation biofuels are a potentially “green” energy source that have something else in common with solar energy: they seem perpetually to be another 10 or 20 years away from widespread commercial viability. But a new Italian plant now claims it can produce commercial quantities of the wonder fuel. The FT reports:

A $150m facility that opened recently in Crescentino is said to be the first in the world to produce “second-generation” or advanced bioethanol on a commercial scale using enzymatic conversion. It uses agricultural waste and arundo donax, a fast-growing kind of bamboo, rather than scarce foodstuffs….

“We will turn agricultural waste into millions of litres of low-emission green fuel, proving that cellulosic ethanol is no longer a distant dream. It is here, it is happening, and it is ready for large-scale commercialisation,” [Peder Holk Nielsen, chief executive of Denmark’s Novozymes] said of the facility in northern Italy, which has the capacity to produce 75m litres a year….

Nonetheless, the way ahead is fraught with difficulties, from proving the new technology can compete in cost with conventional gasoline to regulatory hurdles and, in the case of Italy, bureaucratic obstacles.

The advanced biofuels the Italian facility is working to produce are vastly superior to those being produced en masse by the US. To achieve targets set by the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard, American refiners are making ethanol from corn, and in so doing are raising emissions, driving up global food prices, and possibly helping incite riots abroad.

So far, America hasn’t been able to produce second-generation biofuels in commercial quantities. Churning out significant quantities of cellulosic ethanol at cost-effective levels would boost Italy’s domestic energy security and possibly bring down the country’s high electricity prices. If so, we’d hope to see the US follow suit and increased its advanced biofuel production.

We’ll be watching what happens at the Crescentino plant, but in the meantime US policymakers have work to do. Mandating the production of corn ethanol is green policy at its worst; it’s time to end the biofuel boondoggle.

[Arundo donax image courtesy of Wikimedia]

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  • wigwag

    I’m not sure its fair to give too much credit to the Italians; yes the plant will be built there, but the technology was pioneered by a Danish company, Novo-Nordisk. The Copenhagen based giant is one of the biggest pharmaceutical and chemical companies in the world. The plant is in Italy because Denmark is too cold and dark to efficiently grow the bamboo that’s needed.

    Novo-Nordisk is an interesting company (their U.S. headquarters is in Princeton, NJ). No one is better at making industrial enzymes than they are. In the 1970s most insulin-requiring diabetics took insulin that was harvested from pig pancreas collected from slaughterhouses. In the 1980s, human insulin became available for diabetics.

    The largest insulin manufacturer, Indianapolis based Eli Lily, made it by inserting the human insulin gene into bacteria thus coaxing the bacteria to make human insulin. Novo-Nordisk, the second largest insulin producer in the world invented an even more clever approach. The company used proprietary enzymes to cleave animal insulin into human insulin; it was an extraordinary achievement at the time.

    If anyone can figure out how to make cellulosic ethanol it’s the Danes who run Novo-Nordisk.

    By the way, the Company is jointly owned by the Danish Government and a Danish based non-profit. It is highly unionized. Denmark is as “blue” as blue gets. Yet both the Company and the country are thriving.

    Perhaps Professor Mead can explain how the bluest of the blue continues to innovate and continues to thrive. I won’t hold my breath while I wait though.

  • bigfire

    Bamboo may be fast growing. It certainly doesn’t grow in all climate. The reason why it’s used so extensively in Asia is due to the climate there. Take it out of its natural element, and it stop being commercial viable.

  • Corlyss

    I welcome this news of another green boutique fuel breakthrough – just in time for nat gas and fracking to destroy it’s usefulness. I hope the AGW scientists are beavering away to bring forth ALL of their co8ckamamie ideas for saving the planet from CO2, so all of the ideas can be neutered by expanding bounties of nat gas.

  • Vick Medel

    Biodiesel – referred to Fatty Acid Methyl Ester (FAME) or mono-alkyl esters derived from
    vegetable oils or animal fats and other biomass-derived oils that shall be technically proven and approved by the DOE for use in diesel engines, with quality specifications in accordance with the Product Standards.

    Bioethanol – referred to hydrous or anhydrous bioethanol suitably denatured for use as motor fuel, with quality specifications in accordance with similar product standards.

    Biofuels are used to blend only to petroleum based fuels.

    Bio-fuels are nothing but an additives to petroleum based fuels!

    FATTY ACID METHYL ESTER [FAME] IFICATION or Trans [ester] ification


    In organic chemistry, transesterification is the process of exchanging the alkoxy group of an ester compound by another alcohol. These reactions are often catalyzed by the addition of an acid or base.

    Rancidification is the decomposition of fats and other lipids by hydrolysis and/or oxidation. Hydrolysis will split fatty acid chains away from the glycerol backbone in glycerides. These free fatty acids can then undergo further auto-oxidation. Oxidation primarily occurs with unsaturated fats by a free radical-mediated process.

    Redox (Redirected from Oxidation)
    Redox reactions include all chemical processes in which atoms have their oxidation number (oxidation state) changed.

    This can be a simple redox process, such as the oxidation of carbon to yield carbon dioxide, it could be the reduction of carbon by hydrogen to yield methane (CH4), or a complex process such as the oxidation of sugar in the human body, through a series of very complex electron transfer processes.

    The term redox comes from the two concepts of reduction and oxidation. It can be explained in simple terms:

    Oxidation describes the loss of an electron by a molecule, atom or ion
    Reduction describes the gain of an electron by a molecule, atom or ion

    Combustion of hydrocarbons, e.g. in an internal combustion engine, produces water, carbon dioxide, some partially oxidized forms such as carbon monoxide and heat energy. Complete oxidation of materials containing carbon produces carbon dioxide.

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