Asia Biofuels Travelblog, Pt. 2

If this is Wednesday, it must be Singapore.  No, wait -- the signs all say Hong Kong.  I barely remember Monday.  The schedule says we were in Kuala Lumpur, and so do my photos of the Petronas Towers, but it took 10 minutes of brainstorming with Jim to remember where we had lunch on that day.

In the end, it was the push back on European criticisms of Malaysian palm oil that brought it back for us.  Let me explain: As I wrote about a few weeks ago, there is recent concern that clearing jungle and peat bogs to plant oil palms has been contributing 8-10% of global emissions of carbon dioxide in recent years.  When cleared, the soil and peat release somewhere between ten and fifty thousand years worth of fossil carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Such an immense pulse of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere completely overwhelms the benefits of planting this land with any crop destined for refining into biodiesel.  If it is true, we are talking about thousands of years worth of deficit – we are better off, by far, burning petrodiesel.

As a result of this sort of criticism, palm-to-biodiesel investment in Europe has crashed, and The Netherlands has recently banned the import of oil from land that has recently been peat bog.  Granted, the Holland is not the biggest market in Europe by any means, but they have a clear interest in keeping all their reclaimed land dry, which increased carbon emissions threaten via sea level rise.  (I wonder if in Holland you can hear the thunder sounds made by the icecap on Greenland as it melts?)  It is worth considering whether the rest of the EU will follow suit, given the stated policy of reducing carbon emissions by 20% compared with 1990 levels.  Some of the people listening to our presentations about biofuels here are in fact investors in palm plantations, and they were decidedly of the opinion that, at least in Malaysia, no virgin jungle or wetlands are being cleared form growing oil palm.  We were even invited out into the bush to check it out for ourselves.

Perhaps on the next trip.

As a result of the hubbub caused by accusations about carbon release from land cleaning in SE Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia this week sent a delegation to Europe to explain that all is in fact well.  Indonesia is claiming that it has 18 million hectares of degraded land it can use for planting oil palm -- land cleared illegally for timber harvest and now left to rot, as it were.  The word down here is that Indonesia has really cracked down on illegal logging, and the people on the ground seem to think this is credible.  But having just flown over large sections of Borneo, with all the rows of neatly planted oil palm, literally as far as the eye can see from 30,000 feet, I am led to wonder where the truth is.

More news on the topic this week.  From Bloomberg, via The Business Times (6 June, 1007):  According to the story, Indonesia “ups efforts to protect primary forests,” and “won’t allow oil palm growers to cut primary forests for establishing plantations”.  Rachmat Witoelar, Minister for Environment, claims that, “They will be planted in lots already empty.  There are plenty of these, 18 million hectares of them.”  The article goes on to say that Indonesia plans to add seven million ha of plantations by 2011, thereby roughly doubling the global supply of palm oil.

Palm oil has nearly doubled in price in recently, despite the almost quadrupling of supply in recent years.  The price appears to be supported almost entirely by food use of the oil in Asia (primarily India and China), and is presently at a 20-30% premium over the price of petrodiesel.  That means, for the time being, converting palm oil to biodiesel is way underwater.  The only palm oil flowing into gas tanks is due to mandates by national governments for blending, which happens regardless of price.  But that volume is small compared to food use.

Naturally, this leads to a discussion about whether palm oil will stay this high, or whether economic forces will somehow come into play and restore prices to the historical range.  I’m just a simple physicist, but I can’t see prices falling, and my guess is you don’t want to be short on palm oil.

If Indonesia indeed plants all that additional palm, because palm takes a few years to start producing oil, the land will gradually come into production over something like eight years.  This will be completely absorbed by a mere annual ~9% increase in demand, which is less than we have seen in recent years.  The economies of China and India are growing at 8-12% per year, depending on who is doing the accounting.  This suggests anyone who was planning on cheap palm oil for biodiesel is out of luck and needs to find a new feedstock.

But the connection to food markets is a general problem for biofuels these days.  There is already plenty of talk about price pressures on corn due to ethanol demands, and in general biofuels are putting significant pressure on food prices around the world.  And it doesn't look to be the case that we actually have enough arable land or water to simply start cultivating dedicated energy crops at large scale.  There is some hope for jatropha, but it takes a long time to mature and the number of trees presently in production is so small that assertions of it's commercial role are simply guesses.  China is evidently planning on planting 13 million hectares in jatropha -- an area the size of England -- but it just isn't clear what sort of oil production those trees will provide.

All this comes back to Synthetic Biology because in the medium to long term, breaking the connection between biofuels and food crops will only come from building new fuel production pathways in plants and microbes.

More on this in the coming days.

Rob and Jim's Ridiculous Adventure, Or Asia Biofuels Travelblog Pt. 1

(Saturday, 2 June)  Just moments ago, I was annoyed that my e-ticket had been rebooked as a paper ticket, requiring me to carry (and keep safe) 12 boarding passes for my flights over the next 10 days.  But I’ve just discovered a bonus.

Here I sit, not in business class, not in even in first class, but in a “super first class” seat on the top deck of a 747, shortly headed to Taipei and then to Kuala Lumpur along with Jim Newcomb, my colleague from bio-era.  The seat is courtesy of a client, who probably only paid for business class.  I have more legroom here than I do in my living room.  I have to stand up and take a few steps just to see what goodies are stocked in the seat-back pocket in front of me.  When I finally reach the row ahead of me, and retrieve the overnight kit, I find Cellular Day Cream, Cellular Hand Cream, Creamy Moisturizing Lip Balm, and finally, Cellular Lipo-Sculpting Eye Gel.

Jim is stuck back in cattle, err, business class, and I wonder how he is enjoying his Cellular Lipo-Sculpting Eye Gel.  He is that kind of guy.  Formerly of the CIA and various CEO and strategy jobs.  The perfect market for Lipo-Sculpting Eye Gel.  Ah, I know, I’ll regift him my tube of the stuff in order to make up for his lack of legroom.

Let me be clear: I don’t mind the luxury treatment one bit, and I plan to enjoy it.  Because the flight is leaving at 2 AM local and in the next 10 days we will visit 6 Asian financial capitals while giving 5-6 presentations a day, all day, every day.

It’s a tad ironic, then, that these presentations -- and all the associated frequent flier miles -- are in the service of describing the future of the biofuels market in Asia and Europe, which is closely coupled to the desire to reduce carbon emissions.  I’ve been cramming my head full of information about the carbon costs of various biofuels and the effects of carbon regulation on fuels markets.  I’m flying ~20,000 miles in the next 10 days, which, as Jamais Cascio might say, is a hell of a lot of cheeseburgers.

Hmmm…I wonder what the carbon cost is of toting all this Cellular Lipo-Sculpting Eye Gel back and forth across the Pacific at 35,000 feet?  Any thoughts, Jamais?

Ah, the Symphony...

Thanks to good friends, I was able to sit in fine seats last weekend and listen to the Seattle Symphony.  This is the first time I've had a chance to go to Benaroya Hall, and the acoustics there are marvelous.  It's been years since I attended the symphony.  Thinking back, the last time I heard an orchestra perform live might have been 1992 or 1993, perhaps also the last time I was on stage performing.  Abraham Kaplan conducted Mozart's Requiem -- as soon as the last note sounded I wanted to sing the whole thing over.  Couldn't have done it physically -- the first time through took everything out of me -- but the experience was so powerful I wanted to dive back in.

Anyway, the sight of the conductor this weekend engaged in his own little performance, a sort of parallel solo modern dance set to strings, cymbals, and brass, elicited from me the following haiku:

Prokofiev's Three Orange March (20 March 05)

conductor's hair flies
flung with studied abandon
full springtime bluster

And he had the perfect hair for it, too.

Mining the Moleskine

I have carried lots of notebooks over the years, and I only recently found the Moleskine.  It is my favorite by far.  From time to time, I will delve into the pages of my Moleskine for a blog entry.

So, with no further ado...

1 December 2004 :: Tokyo

Robot_goddessAfter getting lost once again in Shinjuku station, finally finding my way to the right subway line, and stumbling into the four story metal robot-ninjapuppet-goddessqueen, I am now sitting happily at Segafredo in the upper lobby of Mori Tower, Roppongi Hills.  There are vast numbers (relatively) of Westerners in suits here, as well as meandering the mall.  But for all their ex-pat spending power, they are out-yenned by the many Japanese patronizing all the Western shops and restaurants.  With equivalent lines at Segafredo and the Starbuck's just downstairs, I wonder how distinctly the concepts of "Western", "European", and "American" are differentiated in the Japanese (and more generally Asian) mind.  Does it make a difference?  Does the conception of the US as a place and culture distinct from Europe, perhaps as exemplified by foreign policy,  come into decisions about where to shop, or with which brands to self-identify?

2 December 2004 :: Approximately the Int'l Date Line

This I wonder -- as clocks (developed largely to assist with navigation) brought about a general  public concern for the precise passage of time, and a common means to accurately measure it, what other tools and concepts so momentously impact the zeitgeist and human condition?  Not relativity and quantum mechanics, I think, because these are neither commonly understood nor measured, and as yet neither find application in common technology.  Indeed, at least for the time being we avoid quantum mechanics in our computers and make little or no mention of the effects of relativity on travelers or satellites.

What will be the tool or concept that changes our conception of biology?  Will it have a polysyllabic name we already know; genomics, metabolomics, proteomics, transcriptomics?  We barely know how to define those terms, and are not yet proficient in measuring any of them.  Perhaps revolution will be found in "molecular medicine", the reduction of health care to understandable, describable interactions of compounds dispensed with a foreknowledge of their effects.

And how will the concept of "molecular medicine", with its reduction of biology to mechanistic interactions and its probable reliance upon stem cell therapies -- even those drawn from the patient -- be received in the context of an apparently resurgent Christian philosophy wherein every cell that possesses the capability of generating a new life, a new individual, is held to have a soul?  What happens when it is demonstrated that stem cells removed from an adult can be reprogrammed and used to generate a new human being?  Will opponents argue that the line is too easy to cross?  Or will the potential health care benefits overwhelm the desire for a self-consistent philosophy?