Summary of Energy Crops sessions at the “World Biofuels Markets” conference (Part 1)

On Tuesday of this week, March 22, I chaired a daylong session on Energy Crops at the World Biofuels Markets conference in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and I also presented a talk at one panel of this session. I’ll briefly summarize the presentations at the first two sessions of the panel in this entry, with a summary of the other two sessions to follow in a separate posting. 

According to the conference website, the World Biofuels Markets conference is “a 3 day ’one stop shop’ [that will] assemble the entire biofuels value chain and accelerate the commercialization of sustainable mobility”. The conference features three days of concurrent sessions on topics including bioethanol, military biofuels, aviation biofuels, advanced biofuels, algae, energy crops, and several sessions on the economic and business aspects of the biofuel business. The meeting is being held at the World Trade Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, a modern well-equipped facility for professional conferences right in the bustling downtown area of the city. As I write this entry, the conference is winding down, with just one session of panels to go before the meeting concludes. 

The Energy Crops session consisted of four panels over the course of the day on Tuesday, March 22. The first panel, “High Powered Energy Crops” featured discussion of new feedstocks such as switchgrass, Miscanthus and others. Caroline Midgley of LMC International began the session with a talk entitled “Can energy crops compete with residues and woody biomass”, a presentation based on economic analysis conducted by her firm. The conclusions of the study were that most countries have adequate existing supplies of biomass that can be used to generate biofuels (e.g. agricultural residues, forest biomass), and that dedicated energy crops may “struggle to compete” with such biofuel feedstocks. However, the study did conclude that energy crops may offer better potential for cost reductions in the future. Neal Gutterson, CEO of Mendel Biotechnology, then spoke about his company’s efforts to develop the high-biomass grassy species Miscanthus as an energy crop. The germplasm of Miscanthus that is currently used is a sterile hybrid of two species, and must be propagated from rootstock or rhizomes. Mendel’s approach is to develop a system where Miscanthus could instead be sold as seeds, and they have done this by creating a fertile tetraploid strain of this crop, from which significant yield increases have been seen. Gutterson also spoke of the company’s other strain development efforts and their programs to assess and assure the sustainability of their products. The final speaker of the panel was Tania de Grave-Curado of AgrenNewEnergy, that is developing a novel oilseed crop, crambe (Crambe abyssinica) that offers some potential advantages for use as a biodiesel feedstock, such as a short growing season (90 days to harvest) and lower water requirements than other crops. Although some of those in attendance were familiar with crambe, it was a new crop to most of us (myself included), and there was good audience discussion of these presentations. 

The second panel focused solely on Jatropha as an emerging energy crop, with speakers from the Jatropha Alliance, SG Biofuels, JOil, and D1 Oils. All the speakers discussed the need for universally-accepted industry standards for the development of this crop as well as the efforts to develop such standards. Sriram Srinivasan of JOil was the first speaker, and he discussed the company’s activities in developing Jatropha varieties with improved oil yield per hectare. The company is using traditional breeding as well as biotechnology to develop improved varieties. Thilo Zelt, the president of the Jatropha Alliance, next spoke about the efforts of his organization to promote standards for the prudent and sustainable use of Jatropha in the production of biofuels. Among other efforts, the Alliance is adopting the newly-released program of the Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels (see below) for a self-certification process for sustainable biofuel production, and also relies on the RFTO standard from the UK for the assessment of CO2 emissions and carbon balance. The next speaker was Miguel Motta of SG Biofuels, who set out the company’s three-fold goal of addressing “Energy, Economics and Execution”. Motta said that Jatropha is currently economically viable and that the company’s JMax 100 variety is capable of producing fuel at $58 per barrel with additional improvement to $31 per barrel possible. SG Biofuels is also developing a hybrid seed technology for Jatropha. The final speaker on this panel was Henk Joos of Quinvita, a Jatropha producer that was recently spun out of D1 Oils. Joos discussed his company’s efforts to develop different Jatropha strains that are appropriate for each growing region and the need to “professionalize” Jatropha as biofuel crop. This panel generated a vigorous audience discussion, which focused on critical issues facing Jatropha’s role as a viable energy crop. 

The remaining panels of the Energy Crops session focused on “Feedstock Systems and Cropping” and “New Generation Plant Biotech”, and I will summarize these panels in the next blog entry in the next day or so. 

As a final note, there was a great deal of discussion throughout the conference regarding sustainability issues and the increasing effort to develop programs and procedures for certification of sustainability. As noted above, the Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels recently announced its program for sustainability certification, and many of the talks at the meeting touched on this issue in one way or another.

D. Glass Associates, Inc. is a consulting company specializing in several fields of biotechnology. David Glass, Ph.D. is a veteran of nearly thirty years in the biotech industry, with expertise in patents, technology licensing, industrial biotechnology regulatory affairs, and market and technology assessments. This blog provides back-up and expanded content to complement a presentation Dr. Glass made at the EUEC 2010 conference on February 2, 2010 entitled “Prospects for the Use of Genetic Engineering in Biofuel Production.” The slides from that presentation, along with more information on D. Glass Associates’ regulatory affairs consulting capabilities, are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99 or at www.dglassassociates.com. The views expressed in this blog are those of Dr. Glass and D. Glass Associates and do not represent the views of any other organization with which Dr. Glass is affiliated.

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