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Ceres and Texas A&M to Develop and Market High-Biomass Sorghum for Cellulosic Ethanol Feedstock

Rooney
High-biomass sorghum under development. Source: Dr. Bill Rooney

Ceres, Inc. and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES) of The Texas A&M University System have entered into an exclusive, multi-year joint research and commercialization agreement for high biomass sorghum.

Sorghum is a genus comprising numerous grass species, some of which are used for grain, fodder and forage (grain sorghum) and some of which are used for syrup production (sweet sorghum). The high-biomass variants will be optimized to produce large amounts of cellulosic biomass in the form of stems, stalks and leaves.

As these [new cellulosic ethanol] technologies mature, farmers will transition from growing as much grain per acre to producing as much biomass as they can per acre, with as little energy and agronomic inputs as possible. This means new crops and specialized hybrids like these high-biomass sorghum types will be needed.

—Peter Mascia, Ceres Vice President of Product Development

Today, sorghum-to-ethanol production uses the grain, like corn, but the plants themselves hold the greatest potential for biofuel production, says Mascia.

Sorghum plants tend to be water-efficient, drought- and heat-tolerant, and grow in warmer climates. The state of Texas is thus interested in exploring the potential use of sorghum as a potential biofuel feedstock. One of Texas A&M’s initiatives, led by Dr. Bill Rooney, is to develop a high-biomass sorghum with a yield of about 20 tons/acre.

Rooney’s first breeding lines—the precursors to hybrids—can approach 20 feet under favorable conditions, could produce more than 2,000 gallons of ethanol per acre—more than four times the current starch-to-ethanol process.

To accelerate product development, Ceres and TAES will work together to expand their marker-assisted breeding efforts. Markers allow plant breeders to identify useful traits in seed tissue or when plants are still seedlings. Large numbers of markers provide a roadmap of the sorghum genome, cutting years off development timelines for new products, and making it easier to improve the makeup of the plants to facilitate processing.

When we combine their resources with our high-throughput trait development capabilities, we believe we can double the rate of improvement to biomass yields, while expanding the range of the crop for earlier planting in cooler and drier conditions, especially on so-called marginal or unproductive land.

—Peter Mascia

As part of this agreement, Ceres will obtain exclusive commercialization rights to TAES’ high-biomass sorghum hybrids developed in the joint research program. The TAES program will receive royalties as well as financial and technology support from Ceres. Other aspects of the collaboration were not disclosed.

In May 2007, Chevron Corporation and the Texas A&M Agriculture and Engineering BioEnergy Alliance (Texas A&M BioEnergy Alliance) announced that they had entered into a strategic research agreement to accelerate the production and conversion of crops for manufacturing ethanol and other biofuels from cellulose. (Earlier post.)

Last week, Ceres announced it had raised $75 million through a private offering of convertible preferred stock. Ceres plans to use the proceeds for research and product development activities in several dedicated energy crops, which are bred to maximize yields of plant biomass. (Earlier post.)

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Comments

tripp

Can someone explain the quest of ethanol from bio feedstocks? Why isn't pyrolysis competitive? It seems like it would be a lot easier and the EROI would be better. Is it a capital cost thing? Why isn't bio oil mentioned more often?

jcwinnie

Competitive? Using biomass to produce electricty is more efficient than producing ethanol. That is not the issue.

The issue is proft. The distribution, or lack thereof, of ethanol is controlled by those companies that distribute gasoline and diesel.

Think about it. When someone says "Texas", do you think electricity? Uh-uh.

There is some validity to the argument that liquid fuels dominate transportation (and Health, State, Justice and about everything else). Curiously, guess who controls a number of battery patents? And solar energy patents? And, the House and the Senate?

That is what is called "investment", padner. Or, if you are in Iraq, "democracy".

Tripp

I'm talking about BTL, not biomass fired electricity. Turning the biomass into oil via pyrolysis or Fischer-Tropsche.

Aussie

From what I read a BTL plant needs $900m startup capital, a port or rail terminal to bring biomass in and take char away, lots of water and a fuel tax break from the govt. Ethanol presents a much lower hurdle to jump over, shame that it doesn't solve the fuel problem.

jcwinnie

DynaMotive, eh? My mistake in assuming that TAES was going the thermal pathway rather than the sugar pathway.

Well, the end-product to which you refer, bio-oil, resembles oil drained from the crankcase of engines during regular maintenance or the black liquor left over from Kraft mill process, so then what to do with it once you have got it?

Then there is that niggling problem of the 10-20% non-compressible gases from the flash process. Aussie mentions the char. Since it is from lignocellulosic crops one would assume that it could become agri-char. So much for the output, except for heat. Operational efficiency can be increased with HRSG (Heat Recovery Steam Generation).

But the main problem is sufficient volume to make the process efficient, which is why Biomass Biofuel Initiative funded projects tend to be CBTL rather than BTL alone.

It is a quandry, since if you argue for the thermal pathway because it is more efficient than the sugar pathway, then how to ignore that electricity generation is more efficient than thermal depolymerization? Other than simple Syngas Spin denial, that is.

If we are going to stick with pyrolysis come hell or high water, because we admire Fischer-Tropsch efficiency and want to focus on rail heads and throughput, then how about Myanmar Viovleum? It's so pure!

Jim G.

I recall seeing a story here about another Vinod Khosla funded startup called Range Fuels. They have a proprietary catalyst to converts syngas (H2/CO) to ethanol. In other words, different process, but the same result.

jcwinnie

Yes, and at least one study from the EPA http://i160.photobucket.com/albums/t175/jcwinni/0529-biz-webcoal.gif shows the method to be more efficient than electricity.

But, then, scientific study is other than Washington's strong suit at present. I would pay more attention to what is said in the graphic about CTL.

Professor Kammen at UC Berkeley is one who contends that converting the biomass to Syngas, then producing cellulosic ethanol is efficient and achieves low carbon. (Some argue for other liquid products, e.g., butanol, rather than ethanol.)

Fortunately, Ted Patzek remains unmuzzled and his most recent analysis http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/Biofuels/OECDSept102007TWPatzek.pdf questions our ability to switch to BTL (No matter how efficient you try to make either pathway.)

The other issue politely being ignored is the dominance of Big Oil. Just as Americans supposedly want the latest belchfire gas guzzler, we also disdain E85 because of less mileage (Huh?), thus the absence of ethanol at the pump and a glut in the ethanol market as food prices rise.

Meanwhile, gas prices stay low while the price of a barrel of oil continues to rise. If gas prices were to rise with the rising cost of oil then they soon would match, then exceed the BTU adjusted price of ethanol.

PostScript:

http://biopact.com/2007/10/dynamotive-to-invest-105-million-to.html Dynamotive in Argentina, gauchos!

jcwinnie

Referncing the retort about the current value in Washington of scientific study: Court rules that Bush Admininistration unlawfully failed to produce scientific assessment of Global Change
http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/index.php/csw/details/court_rules_that_bush_admin_unlawfully_failed_to_produce_scientific_assessm/

It seems to me that FT is only economically feasible in very large installations, while fast-pyrolysis installations can be made small and even mobile. So one can make biocrude close to the biomass-source.
The biocrude can be transported much easier than the biomass. It can be transformed by FT in the large installation.

Jim G.

I have some observations and then I'll shut up:
1) CTL couldn't make much economic sense given that the US coal industry won't even start doing it without subsidies from the taxpayer.
2) No one has tried to "muzzle" Mr. Patzek, have they? I've seen it pointed out that he has oil company connections. And he boosts the food-versus-fuel argument in a hysterical, apocalyptic way, and that's the central message of the oil industry's campaign against biofuels, as noted in the NYT earlier this year. I think it's perfectly valid to see what he says through that lens.
3) E85 hasn't been rejected by consumers, it hasn't even been presented to consumers.
4) I still don't see why we can't go for both biofuels and fuel economy, or both biofuels and EV's. It seems to be this big mental block for people.

sjc

"I still don't see why we can't go for both biofuels and fuel economy, or both biofuels and EV's..."

Seems to me like we will need everything at the same time to put a dent in the situation. CAFE, E10, plug hybrids..they all have potential benefits and will all be needed ASAP.

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