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Choppin’ Broccoli

In the quest for chemicals and fuels made from biomass, there are a few important black boxes that make it difficult to compare different companies’ business models and likelihood of success. One of them is the process by which a particular facility obtains sugars from its biomass feedstock.

In many cases, the first step is expensive, but low-tech – chopping up the stuff. This is the part that reminds me of Choppin’ Broccoli, the Saturday Night Live song as performed by Dana Carvey. Since cellulosic ethanol is sort of an offshoot of corn ethanol, it’s helpful to imagine how different it is to process a corn cob or stalk or an entire sugar cane, compared to grinding up a starchy corn kernel. Getting sugar from cellulose is difficult enough, getting the cellulose away from the clutches of a plant’s lignin first requires heavy machinery to chop it into little pieces.

So say you have tidy chipped up pieces of biomass. What do you do then? Like the SNL song, it ain’t pretty. Generally it requires some combination of thermochemical assaults to get the sugar out. Steam, alkali-acid washes, and pricey enzymes… In an otherwise green business, the pretreatment steps use energy and possibly chemicals that you wouldn’t want to spill.

Since pretreatment of biomass has a lot to do with both costs and the yield of sugars from feedstock, it is a busy area of research. An article by Chris Hanson in the appropriately named Biomass Magazine delves into some intriguing ideas. To release the useful cellulose from lignin, researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the U.S. DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute are investigating ionic liquids. Instead of using a traditional, two-stage alkali-acid pretreatment, a dose of butadiene sulfone got the job done in one step, according to U. of Illinois scientist Hao Feng. Another major benefit is that the butadiene sulfone can be recovered and recycled.

In California, the JBEI has been experimenting with imidazolium chloride. It has succesfully obtained sugar yields of 95% from mixed feedstocks and recycled 95% of the ionic liquid.

And a company called Leaf Energy has been studying a glycerol pretreatment method. Compared to acid pretreatments, the company says their method gets more sugars faster by dissolving lignin with a relatively inexpensive reagent with low temperature and standard pressure.

The goal with improving pretreatment steps is to bring down the cost of sugar from cellulose so that it is not more expensive than sugar from corn or sugar cane. Maybe if major cellulosic ethanol producers take up these technologies, we’ll have a better window into how they get the sugar out.

 

Optimists at the BIO Show

I’m in Montreal today for the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology – put on by the Biotechnology Industry Association. The soaking rain that threatened to drown my arrival on Sunday has given way to warmer weather with just a few threatening clouds. Similarly, the mood at the show is one of patient optimism.

This year is the show’s tenth anniversary and it is reported to be the largest one yet with 1200 attendees. There are actually seven tracks of breakout sessions which makes it rather difficult for this reporter to follow along.

The major change that I’ve noticed compared to my first show four years ago is in the content of the presentations. It used to be all about the super microbe – speakers would show off elaborate slides with metabolic pathways – they all looked like very complicated subway maps. Since then the industry has learned that microbes can build a lot, but they can’t build your business for you.

This year the subject matter is all about scale up and applications. The language is more MBA than MicroBio. Supply chains, value chains, financing, customers, joint ventures, IPOs. Of course by now any start-up with a microbe has learned by now if their business plan is worth money or not – and only those that answer yes are still here.

I’ve been told to expect some major announcements this morning so follow along with my tweets @MelodyMV if you want the dish. Yesterday Myriant said it got its bio succinic acid plant up and running in Lake Providence, LA. It will be ramping up tp 30 million lbs per year.

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It’s Actually Happening: Military biofuels grants

Never has such a small government payout generated such a busy PR reaction. Late last weeek – and very quietly – the Defense Department awarded three biofuels firms $16 million to craft plans for biorefineries that would produce fuels meeting military specifications.

Jim Lane at Biofuels Digest has been tracking this development closely and he points out that “A coalition of Advanced Biofuels Association, the Air Line Pilots Association, Airlines for America, the American Council on Renewable Energy, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Security Project, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the National Farmers Union and Operation Free was swift to applaud the DoD.”

Great Green Fleet

U.S. Navy’s Great Green Fleet. In July 2012 it ran on a 50/50 biofuel and petroleum blend.

There are two main reasons why these tiny grants (each requires matching funds from the contracting companies) are fairly big news. One is that military spending on biofuels is a very touchy subject in Congress and there were some doubts about whether the program would move forward in this time of austerity and sequestration.

Secondly, U.S. airlines (and those around the world) are extremely keen to see the development of drop-in biobased jet fuel. To have the military join them on the demand side may make the difference between getting the stuff and not getting the stuff.

You can read C&EN’s exploration of bio-based jet fuel efforts. My colleague Andrea Widener wrote about House members’ attempts to block military spending on biofuels.

It is important to note that the funding comes out of the Defense Production Act Title II program and was not, in the end, successfully blocked. The program also would contain funds for a phase II portion of the program though money would have to be appropriated from the FY2013 budget.

In lieu of a press release (the DoD did not issue one), here are further program details that I received from a DoD spokesman.

There were three awards totaling $16.0M in government funds, which will be matched by $17.4M in private sector funds for Phase I of the project.

The first awardee is Emerald Biofuels LLC, which is located in Golf, IL – a northern suburb of Chicago. For this project, Emerald has agreed to match $5.4M in government funding with $6.4M of their own. Second, we have Natures BioReserve LLC of South Sioux City, Nebraska which will match $6.0M in government funding with $6.2M of company funds. The third awardee is Fulcrum Brighton Biofuels of Pleasanton, CA which will receive $4.7M in government funding and match that with $4.7M of their own funds.

Phase I of the project involves validation of production technology, verification of technical maturity, site selection, plant design, permitting, and detailed cost estimation, all of which will require 12-15 months to complete. Following Phase I, interagency technical experts will evaluate the projects to determine if they will move on to Phase II, which is for biorefinery construction

If all Phase I projects successfully complete the second phase of this project, awardees project that this would represent more than 150M gallons per year of drop-in, military-compatible fuels with initial production capacity by 2016 at an average cost of less than $4 per gallon.

For now, the U.S. military is sailing in relatively safe waters when it sticks with research and testing projects. But it would need a political mine sweeper ahead of any plans to build its own biorefineries or make large purchase contracts for pricey biofuels such as the $26/gal algae fuel used to power the Navy’s recent exercises off the coast of Hawaii.

Speaking of the Navy, one way to track the progress of biofuels in the military is to keep an eye on the Navy’s Great Green Fleet.

 

Technology (like GMOs) and its Discontents

Thanks to the wonders of internet technology (specifically, online newspapers, e-mail, and Twitter), I have been immersed today in a veritable blizzard of communications about whether particular technologies are bad for us or for the planet, and what should be done about them. Truly, a wide range of people, opinions, and actions.

GMOs
I much enjoyed a radio interview/debate about legislation that would force food makers to label food containing genetically modified organisms. If you have a few spare minutes, check out this KPBS San Diego piece featuring Steven Briggs, Distinguished Professor, Section of Cell and Developmental Biology, UC San Diego, and David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap.

http://www.kpbs.org/audioclips/17711/
[the interview starts at about minute 1:10]

The show addresses a bit of background: Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has introduced a GMO labeling bill in the Senate. A state referendum in California to require labeling was defeated in the recent election. And a recent poll claims that 91% of consumers are in favor of labeling.

In the interview, Briggs states that efforts to require GMO labeling are based on confusion about GMOs and are not about nutrition or safety but about ideology (specifically anti-corporate ideology). Bronner, on the other side, says consumers want information about GMOs and have a right to know. He says that while our experience so far does not show that GMOs have caused health problems, the consumers want to understand what method of agriculture produced their food. He also states that GMOs promote non-sustainable farming.

In the interview, Bronner mentions two aspects of GM technology that you can read about in C&EN:
A new GM apple
http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/i14/Engineered-Apples-Near-Approval.html
And new seed traits that confer tolerance to older herbicides 2,4 D and Dicamba http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i21/War-Weeds.html

For a longer, though more one-sided discussion of the possible benefits of GMOs, there is a new book out, called the God Species by Mark Lynas, a historian and writer of global warming warning books. He recently did an eco-about-face and came out in favor of GM technologies. Prior to that coming out, he had been an anti-GMO activist.

For a hefty dose of his thinking, you can read an essay here: http://www.marklynas.org/2013/04/time-to-call-out-the-anti-gmo-conspiracy-theory/

He would probably not be in favor of requiring GMO labels on food. In the essay (actually a speech) is this line: “Allowing anti-GMO activists to dictate policymaking on biotechnology is like putting homeopaths in charge of the health service, or asking anti-vaccine campaigners to take the lead in eradicating polio.”

Cosmetics Ingredients/Industrial Chemicals
I also got an e-mail titled “Shareholders urge Avon to Detox.” An investor fund with strong activist leanings, the Green Century Equity Fund, has filed a shareholder resolution asking Avon Corporation to phase out what it calls hazardous chemicals in its cosmetics and personal care products. Green Century urges Avon to follow the lead of Johnson and Johnson, which said it would phase out certain ingredients starting with its baby products.

The fund lists 1,4-dioxane, retinyl palmitate, formaldehyde, triclosan, and phthalates as some of the hazardous chemicals of concern commonly found in many personal care products.

The general outlines of this campaign has been in the works for a good while – you can read more in a C&EN feature from back in 2010: Preservatives Under Fire
http://cen.acs.org/articles/88/i20/Preservatives-Under-Fire.html

Taking a much broader scope, public health historians David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz have collaborated on a book detailing the political history of lead exposure and public health. They wrote an essay that got picked up and republished on Bill Moyers website. The title would make any chemical firm’s PR department clench: Your Body Is a Corporate Test Tube. The gist is that the decades-long fight to reduce children’s exposure to harmful lead will be fought again against today’s common stuff like vinyl, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A, and polychlorinated biphenyls.

http://billmoyers.com/2013/04/29/your-body-is-a-corporate-test-tube/

Nuclear Weapons
I’m including this mostly because it involves terrific story telling. Three outsiders on a peace mission from God broke into nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge National Lab. As profiled in the Washington Post.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/style/2013/04/29/the-prophets-of-oak-ridge/

Fast Food Fight Over Biofuels

Will the U.S. government’s biofuels mandate increase the cost of your favorite “dollar menu” item?

A trade group of chain restaurants – which includes fast service joints – called the National Council of Chain Restaurants, has put out a report saying that the EPA’s Renewable Fuels Standard will increase restaurant food costs. According to NCCR, the RFS will cause the cost of corn to rise by 27% (according to two studies) or perhaps by only 4% (according to one study).

In addition to mandating ethanol made from corn, the RFS is the mandate driving the new industry of cellulosic ethanol. Biofuels producers of all kinds love mandates. Love is not a strong enough word, actually. I’m not sure what word DuPont would use. It just broke ground on a 30 million gal/year cellulosic ethanol facility in Nevada, Iowa.

But the fast food group argues that the RFS means higher corn costs and higher costs for everything from wheat and soybeans to beef, poultry and eggs. The average fast food restaurant spent just over $180,000 in 2011 on food commodities. Once the RFS is fully phased in, the cost of that food would go up, they claim, by 10% in the worst scenario and 1.6% in the best.

Recently, when the EPA denied requests by governors and members of congress (many representing the cattle and poultry industry concerned about rising costs of feed), it said its own estimates showed corn prices were affected only slightly by demand for ethanol – by about 1%.

The NCCR report contains the following statement:

“Increased demand for corn for use in ethanol will cause corn prices to increase, in the absence of adjustments to the supply of corn.”

But according to the USDA, both corn acreage, and importantly, yield per acre, have soared in recent years due to the additional demand from ethanol:

Corn production has risen over time, as higher yields followed improvements in technology (seed varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery) and in production practices (reduced tillage, irrigation, crop rotations, and pest management systems).

Strong demand for ethanol production has resulted in higher corn prices and has provided incentives to increase corn acreage. In many cases, farmers have increased corn acreage by adjusting crop rotations between corn and soybeans, which has caused soybean plantings to decrease. Other sources of land for increased corn plantings include cropland used as pasture, reduced fallow, acreage returning to production from expiring Conservation Reserve Program contracts, and shifts from other crops, such as cotton.

Companies that are building facilities to produce advanced biofuels (not derived from food sources) are probably more dependent on the RFS than their corn-consuming counterparts. With corn ethanol selling for $2 a gallon, fuel blenders will likely seek it out even without a mandate. While it would be more comfortable to ignore this food fight, the future of the RFS could make or break the future of advanced biofuels.

[Not surprisingly, the Renewable Fuels Association has issued a response to the NCCR's report]

 

Energy Crops: the sweet and the sour

Switchgrass, miscanthus, hybrid poplar – these are just the first three plants I think of when I hear the term “energy crop.” But I heard of a new one a few weeks ago when I attended a conference (story fortcoming) about commercializing biobased chemicals and fuels. Let me introduce you to a very big “weed” called Arundo donax.

Arundo donax is a giant reed from Asia. Credit: USDA

While most energy crops produce a few tons of dry biomass per acre, Arundo – a tall bamboo-like reed – can produce several. Like switchgrass, it is a perennial. Like Kudzu, however, it is self-propagating and possibly horribly invasive.

It looks like the huge plant (it’s a weed when it grows where it isn’t wanted, like in California), may become a lot more well-known in biofuels circles. Chemtex will use it, along with wheat straw, in its first commercial facility in Crescentino, Italy. This plant is already humming, and commercial ethanol production is expected to begin early next year.

Chemtex plans to construct another ethanol plant in eastern North Carolina. Through a USDA program intended to promote rural development through the cultivation of energy crops, the company was offered a $99 million loan guarantee to plant “high yielding energy grasses, including miscanthus and switchgrass.” According to a fascinating look at Arundo cultivation – and eradication – by the Associated Press, it looks like the giant weed may also be part of the mix.

Meanwhile, a much sweeter crop, a high-sugar variety of sorghum, may be edging its way into Brazil’s famous sugar-growing regions. Plant biotech firm Ceres, and agribusiness firm Syngenta plant to run test plots of hybrid sweet sorghum destined for ethanol production. The press release says that Brazil’s ethanol industry has created a shortage of sugar cane, and the country views sorghum as a strategic crop.

While Arundo would be harvested just for its biomass, sorghum is usually grown for its seed which is used in animal feed.

Advanced Biofuels Makers Thankful for RFS

I wanted to point your attention to Jeff Johnson’s story today about why EPA will not wave biofuel blending requirements (known as the Renewable Fuels Standard or RFS). Nine governors and many members of Congress, prodded (no pun intended) by livestock producers, had asked EPA to waive the standard saying that ethanol demand was driving up the cost of corn.

What I found interesting is that EPA estimates that waiving the mandate would only reduce corn prices by approximately 1%. This year’s U.S. corn harvest was impacted by drought, and yields plummeted to a 17-year low, Johnson reports.

While the RFS was initially written into law in 2007 to enhance U.S. energy security, it is considered the main policy vehicle driving demand for advanced biofuels. These are biofuels made not from food grain like corn, but from other feedstocks like corn stover, sustainably harvested wood or waste products. These fuels, when commercialized, are expected to help lower the U.S. contribution to CO2 emissions.

The members of BIO, a trade group of advanced biofuels firms and biobased chemical makers, reacted with joy to the announcement.

“EPA has made the right decision and we thank them for making a careful and fully considered analysis,” said Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section. “Earlier studies by researchers at Purdue University, Iowa State University and the University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute showed clearly that a waiver of the RFS would not undo the economic harm caused by the drought.

“However, a waiver of the RFS could have undercut ongoing investments in advanced biofuels. Renewable fuels are a significant contributor to our nation’s economy and energy security, creating jobs and directly reducing reliance on imported oil. This decision allows BIO member companies to continue to deliver innovative technologies to the market to expand our domestic production of biofuels, including fuels from agricultural residues, municipal solid waste, algae and purpose grown energy crops.”

Connecting those themes – the RFS, the drought, and CO2 emissions, NOAA recently reported that man-made climate change was an important contributor to the extent and duration of the 2011 drought in Texas.

DowAgro Satisfies Growers on 2,4 D Drift Dangers

[With a note on some confusion about wheat, and if it has been genetically modified (see below)]

The herbicide 2,4 D is pretty powerful stuff. It has recently been in the news because it kills weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate (brand name Roundup). In May, I wrote about efforts by Dow AgroSciences to bring a new genetically modified corn to market that has been engineered to be tolerant to 2,4 D.

The idea is that the new corn would withstand applications of both glyphosate and 2,4 D, and that farmers would use those two herbicides, and presumably a rotation of at least one other chemical control, to kill weeds and prevent new occurrences of resistant weeds.

Along with the new corn, Dow scientists created a new version of 2,4 D, called 2,4 D Choline, that is less likely to drift off the fields where it has been applied. Now, one group of growers, the Save Our Crops Coalition, has issued a joint statement with Dow saying that the information Dow has supplied about reduced drift and volatility, along with the company’s pledge to investigate non-target claims, has gone a long way to satisfy its concerns about migrating herbicide. Both SOCC and Dow say they have “agreed to modify positions with respect to pending regulatory matters around 2,4-D tolerant crops.”

Prior to this agreement, the Save Our Crops Coalition had used the USDA’s open comment period to request an environmental impact statement to assess the likelihood of drift from 2,4 D applications.

They pointed out that since not all farmers will be growing 2,4 D tolerant crops, drift to non-intended targets could result in significant crop damage, since it would be applied during the growing season (imaging a field of vegetables that got smogged by 2,4 D – the plants would croak along with the weeds).

I reported on Dow’s work to reduce migration of 2,4 D in the C&EN feature story. Here’s the relevant background:

David E. Hillger, an application technology specialist at Dow AgroSciences, explains that rather than traditional ester or amine forms of the molecule, which can volatilize in the environment, the new version is a more stable quaternary ammonium salt.

In addition, Hillger says Dow’s proprietary manufacturing process produces a product with less particle drift when application directions are followed. Dow recently reported that field tests of the formula showed a 92% reduction in volatility and a 90% reduction in drift.

Crops that contain the 2,4-D tolerance- trait will also tolerate older versions of 2,4-D. However, Dow has developed a stewardship program that obligates farmers to use a premixed combination of 2,4-D choline and glyphosate. The program includes farmer education about using multiple herbicide modes of action, the requirement to use Dow’s new herbicide mixture, and labeling instructions for proper application. State pesticide regulations generally require farmers to follow labeling guidelines when using herbicides.

For now DowAgrosciences is waiting on regulatory authorizations for 2,4-D tolerant corn, but the company says it plans to get the green light in time for the 2013 growing season.

Certainly there are other criticisms of the 2,4 D-tolerant crops still out there. One important concern is that farmers may use chemical fertilizers in such a way as to promote even more herbicide-resistant weeds – ones that cannot be killed with 2,4 D or glyphosate. Another is the possibility that the amount of 2,4 D used on crops will dramatically increase (glyphosate, though used in large amounts, breaks down rather quickly in soil).

And of course, foes of all types of GMO crops abound, and anyone who is against Roundup Ready corn is not likely to be in favor of the new varieties.

Speaking of which, I’ve noted a number of commentaries relating to wheat lately, apparently due to the rise of anti-gluten eating. Many leave the reader with the impression that the U.S. is awash in genetically modified wheat. This is incorrect – there are many wheat hybrids on the market today, but none have been genetically engineered.

I find it handy to refer to an online USDA list – updated seemingly daily – which lists pending GM crops as well as those that have been approved already (in the section titled Determinations of Nonregulated Status). You may want to bookmark it, or have it printed on handy cards to give to people.

http://www.aphis.usda.gov/biotechnology/not_reg.html

Algae Ponds: the lovers and the haters

This week’s issue of C&EN includes some news from algae-based biofuels firm Sapphire Energy. The company is reporting its first harvests of algae biomass from a large, outdoor algae farm in New Mexico.

Sapphire’s outdoor raceway ponds in New Mexico. Source: Sapphire Energy

Sapphire has grown and gathered 21 million gallons of algae biomass totaling 81 tons. Eventually, the plan is to make a kind of crude oil from the algae. They grow the stuff in very large outdoor ponds. According to the press release, “the cultivation area consists of some of the largest algae ponds ever built with groupings of 1.1 acre and 2.2 acre ponds which are 1/8 of a mile long.”

You’d think that the promoters of algae for biofuels would be clinking glasses filled with spirulina-enhanced juice at the news. But you’d be wrong.

In fact, a trade group of algae firms calling itself the National Algae Association says the kind of ponds used by Sapphire – known as raceway ponds (you can see why looking at this image) – will not scale up commercially. Instead the NAA supports the development of photobioreactors (PBRs for short). Similarly, algae researcher Jonathan Trent, writing in a New Scientist magazine piece that also appears in Slate is arguing in favor of photobioreactors. Specifically, Trent says PBRs should be deployed offshore. I’ll quote from his article where he summarizes the raceway/PBR tradeoffs:

There remains the question of how and where to grow the algae. A few species are cultivated commercially on a small scale, in shallow channels called raceways or in enclosures called photobioreactors (PBRs). Raceways are relatively inexpensive, but need flat land, have lower yields than PBRs and problems with contamination and water loss from evaporation. PBRs have no problems with contamination or evaporation, but algae need light, and where there is light, there is heat: A sealed PBR will cook, rather than grow, algae. And mixing, circulating, and cleaning problems send costs sky high.

Trent doesn’t mention what industry analysts complain about the most. When it comes to algae, though PBRs might be the best bet, they require too much capital expenditure for the equipment.

Meanwhile, Solazyme, which started life as an algal fuels firm but now is manufacturing oils for use in skin cream and other high value applications, grows its algae in a third way – its algae live in bioreactors, but in the dark. They eat sugar and make oil. Is there a best way to commercialize algae for fuels and chemicals? Is there any way? It seems that it is still too early to tell.

Switchgrass Bait and Switch

Sometimes when you dig a little on Google News you find fascinating nuggets in local news of the topics that we cover here at C&EN. A great example is in Knoxville’s alternative newsweekly Metro Pulse.*

They grew the switchgrass. Now what? Credit: University of Tennessee

Newshound Joe Sullivan digs into what ever became of $70 million that the state of Tennessee spent in the flush days of 2007 to start up a switchgrass and cellulosic ethanol industry in the state.

The good news on the project is that the promised 250,000 gal per year cellulosic ethanol plant did open, in Vonore, Tennessee. The bad news is that it has not been using any of the switchgrass grown on 5,000 surrounding acres. The switchgrass part of the project involved the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. The state figured switchgrass would grow great there. And it seems to have been correct.

Sullivan reports that more than half of the $70 million project money went to build the pilot plant. But corporate partner DuPont (now DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol) has used the pilot plant to test and demonstrate its ability to make ethanol from corn stover. Corn stover is a feedstock that is available in huge quantities…. in Iowa. As it happens, DuPont’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant is in Nevada, Iowa, and is set to come online soon.

C&EN has mentioned the Vonore plant a half dozen times (including in a previous post on this blog). The move away from switchgrass escaped our attention, but it is an important development for the UT folks and the farmers they have been working with.

So what will happen to the 50,000 tons of switchgrass that were harvested by Vonore-area farmers? Read the story to find out.

* Edited 8/28 to correct reference to Metro Pulse