It’s Actually Happening: Military biofuels grants
May30

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." 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...

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Technology (like GMOs) and its Discontents
Apr30

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...

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Fast Food Fight Over Biofuels
Nov30

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...

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Energy Crops: the sweet and the sour
Nov26

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. 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...

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Advanced Biofuels Makers Thankful for RFS
Nov20

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...

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DowAgro Satisfies Growers on 2,4 D Drift Dangers
Sep11

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...

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