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Japan is looking to bioethanol as a way to become less dependent on imported energy.

While bioethanol production is still in a nascent stage here, there are significant moves in both the public and private sectors to use Japanese technology to improve production of the plant-based fuel.

Experts say it could be years before domestically produced bioethanol is competitive with imports. But they say Japan can take a leading role in the field by applying its fermentation and energy conservation technologies.

Developing a more efficient and higher-yield process to make bioethanol would help Japan reduce its dependence on foreign energy sources and, at the same time, cut emissions as required under the Kyoto Protocol.

Bioethanol is an alcohol made by fermenting organic matter, typically corn, sugar cane, wheat or rice, in a process similar to brewing beer. The results are combined with gasoline to help cut down on vehicle emissions, including carbon monoxide.

The amount of carbon dioxide emitted when bioethanol is burned is about the same as for gasoline. But with bioethanol, carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere when the plant ingredients grow.

This makes bioethanol attractive to energy-hungry Japan as it struggles to find ways to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels under the Kyoto Protocol.

Policymakers and researchers, however, point to the drawbacks of bioethanol.

Brazil, which uses sugar cane, and the United States, with corn, are the two biggest bioethanol producers. The rapidly growing demand for their bioethanol is raising concerns that soon there will be a shortage of sugar cane and corn for food, driving up their market prices.

Another big problem is that it takes large quantities of fossil fuel to manufacture and ship bioethanol to Japan.

Honda Motor Co. has teamed up with the Kyoto-based Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth (RITE) to produce bioethanol using rice straw and other agricultural waste products found locally.

Japan is relatively new to the ethanol game, but Honda’s alliance with RITE, which began last spring, has already yielded promising results.

Until now, during the fermentation process, impurities in the stew of ingredients boiled to make bioethanol interfered with the action of the yeast that turns the sugar in the rice straw into alcohol, resulting in low ethanol yields.

RITE’s solution was to replace the yeast bacteria with genetically engineered coryne bacteria, which are resistant to the impurities.

This breakthrough, touted as a world first by Honda and RITE, has increased the ethanol yield about 20 times. Yoshikazu Fujisawa, Honda R&D Co.’s senior chief engineer, said 1 kg of rice straw yields about 200 grams of alcohol in the new process.

The government is also funding research into how to turn agricultural waste into bioethanol. It estimates that its six pilot projects produced about 30 kiloliters of ethanol last year.

One of the six pilot projects is at Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding Co. The firm has been producing bioethanol from wood waste in Okayama Prefecture since 2005, using an enzyme developed by Finland’s VTT Technical Research Center. The other ingredients include wheat, sorghum and sugar cane.

Earlier this month, the government also approved two new projects in Hokkaido and one in Niigata Prefecture. They are expected to churn out a combined 31,000 kiloliters of bioethanol made from rice and wheat annually over the next five years.

However, using foodstuffs for anything other than eating is a sensitive issue. Japan has one of the lowest food self-sufficiency rates in the industrialized world, producing only 40 percent of its own food in terms of calories.

Therefore, there is a push to make fuel from the inedible parts of the rice plant — something Japan has a lot of.

“Domestically grown rice is probably the best answer for Japan’s much-needed ethanol production,” said Kazuo Morozumi, a professor of agricultural science at Tohoku University, referring to the large number of rice paddies that are fallow.

“Rice for bioethanol will make better use of rice paddies sitting empty and create employment (for farmers), injecting life into flagging rural areas,” Morozumi said, adding there are similar opportunities in the U.S. farming sector by ethanol production.

Honda spokesman Shigeki Endo said Honda has received many phone calls from grateful farmers expecting that soon they won’t have to throw out the rice chaff they don’t use for fertilizer.

Akihiko Kondo, a professor of engineering at Kobe University, said he expects advances in fermentation and energy conservative technology to greatly increase the energy-supply potential of ethanol and reduce production costs.

He also cited the growing difficulty in finding new sources of oil and gas, which are driving up production costs and consumer prices.

Despite all the attention bioethanol has been getting as the next staple fuel, experts are warning countries not to count on bioethanol to solve the world’s energy supply problems.

During a visit to Japan in May, the founder of the U.S. environment group Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown, urged the country to focus more on research in areas it is already leading in, including energy conservation and solar power.

Bioethanol, said Brown, a former adviser to the U.S. agriculture secretary, should be only one option to cut the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Wako University professor Koichi Iwama said bioethanol isn’t a good substitute for fuel.

“Calculating bioethanol’s cost of production and shipping, it’s not a very good product,” Iwama said. “The energy from fossil fuels required to produce it and transport it from abroad exceeds the amount of energy the bioethanol itself produces” when it’s used.

Japan isn’t ready to introduce the experimental fuel widely yet.

The first commercially available vehicle fuel made with bioethanol, France’s ETBT, went on sale here in late April. The fuel, which is a blend of bioethanol with isobutylene, is available at only about 50 gas stations in the Tokyo area.

The government has said it wants to expand bioethanol fuel’s availability in the decades ahead. It said that as long as technological advancements continue, it aims domestically to produce about 6 million kiloliters of bioethanol for vehicle fuel, which would be about one-tenth of the current fuel demand.

However, there are still many problems in the production process that need to be worked out.

Honda’s Fujisawa said the carmaker and RITE hope to start full-scale production with their new technique in the near future. However, he said it will take at least two years to integrate all the parts of the Honda-RITE bioethanol process into one plant, something they need to do to evaluate the profitability of making the fuel and to see how much they can reduce emissions during production.

For related stories:
Japan’s major oil distributors begin shipping biogasoline

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