Summary of Energy Crops sessions at the “World Biofuels Markets” conference (Part 2)

On Tuesday of last week, March 22, I chaired a daylong session on Energy Crops at the World Biofuels Markets conference in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and also presented a talk at one panel of this session. The Energy Crops session consisted of four panels over the course of the day on Tuesday, March 22.  In the previous blog entry, I summarized the presentations and discussion on the first two panels, and in this entry, I’ll briefly summarize the presentations at the final two sessions of the panel. 

The third panel of the Energy Crops session focused on “Feedstock Systems and Cropping”.  For myself, and perhaps for others in the audience coming to the field from the perspective of biological training or experience, the subject matter of this panel was unfamiliar, but at times eye-opening, and clearly important for the commercial use of energy crops in biofuel manufacture. The presentations were devoted to discussions of the ways in which the yield of biofuel from various plant feedstocks can be negatively affected by certain common cropping, harvesting and processing practices, and how these can be overcome to increase fuel yield. The first speaker was Gavin Maxwell of Coolfin Partnership, who discussed the need to minimize “pre-farmgate” costs and waste in the harvesting and processing of energy feedstocks. His particular example was the use of Miscanthus canes to yield pellets for use in bioenergy production, where seemingly routine practices like the mechanical chopping of the canes to create the pellets can result in potentially significant economic losses due to abrasion of the cutting blades, resulting in contamination of the pellets with metal particles, thus reducing the efficiency of the pellets for their intended end use. John Finnan, of the Irish agriculture and food development authority Teagasc, then discussed similar types of losses or potential adverse economic effects resulting from harvesting practices, also focused on Miscanthus. Finnan reported on direct harvest losses (e.g. the amount of biomass left on the ground after harvesting) as well as indirect losses (e.g. yield decreases caused by compacting of the soil by harvesters and other farm machinery). Finally, Lucy Hopwood of the National Non-Food Crops Centre (NNFCC), the U.K.’s national center for biorenewable energy, fuels and materials, discussed a number of factors negatively affecting the logistics and efficiency of energy crop utilization, for example the fact that energy crops are not always grown in the areas where they are most needed for energy generation, thus increasing transportation costs and harming the bottom line. Together, this panel made a compelling case that, although the impact of any one of these many factors may be small, together they can add up to significant yield decreases, and concomitant economic disadvantage, for the growers and processors of energy crops. 

The fourth and final panel of the session was devoted to “New Generation Plant Biotech”. My talk led off the session, and I presented an overview of the approaches being taken to apply genetic engineering and other advanced biotechnologies to the improvement of energy crops. I have already previewed my talk elsewhere in this blog, and the slides from my presentation are now available at my SlideShare site, so I won’t describe my talk here. There were planned to be three additional speakers on the panel, but the speaker from Kaiima was unable to attend, and so we heard presentations only from FuturaGene and Life Technologies. Stanley Hirsch of FuturaGene gave a broad overview of his company’s activities in developing improved energy crops, particularly including improved varieties of Eucalyptus, which FuturaGene has been field testing in Brazil and elsewhere in the world. He described some of the company’s strategies to enhance the growth rate of these crops, as well as to enhance the availability of free cellulose molecules in plant tissue to better enable digestion of the biomass in the preprocessing stages of cellulosic ethanol production. The final speaker was Nathan Wood of Life Technologies, who discussed his company’s activities in cutting-edge genomics as they applied to the biofuels sector, including the company’s work with SG Biofuels in sequencing the Jatropha genome. 

This last panel concluded a long and rewarding day of interesting presentations, discussing research and innovations taking place along various stages of the life cycle of energy crops as they are used to produce biofuels. I won’t be blogging about any of the other sessions at the World Biofuels Markets conference, but I found the conference to be quite useful in exposing participants to so many different aspects of the biofuels business, including in my case exposure to issues relating to international fuel standards and sustainability standards as they apply to the production of biofuels, which I expect will be useful to me in the future. 

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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