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Biofuels not a food-versus-fuel issue, industry leaders report

Future food production and the development of alternative fuels in the U.S. can coexist without turning into a food-versus-fuel issue, according to several California leaders.

“The subject is not food or fuel; it’s the approach American ingenuity is taking to modify and improve things so we get on the right track and not conflict with each other,” said Bernie Weiss, director, Silicon Valley Center for International Trade Development, Campbell, Calif.

Weiss’ remarks opened a biomass energy production seminar held during World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., in February. Speakers included Frank Hardimon, director of sales, Ceres, Inc., Thousand Oaks, Calif.; Rahul Iyer, chief strategy officer and co-founder, Primafuel, Signal Hill, Calif.; and Thorson Bailey, president, Ag Biomass Council, Chico, Calif.

“I think we are on the advent of a new industry,” Hardimon surmised.

Ceres is applying its research findings on the human genome to plant technology and advance bioenergy crop production. The company is developing switchgrass, high biomass sorghum, energy cane, sweet sorghum, and short rotational woody crop varieties for future biomass production.

“These crops are best suited for cellulosic energy for liquid fuels including E-85 ethanol, biodiesel, and butanol (butyl alcohol) through biochemical and thermal chemical processes,” Hardimon said. The new crops and technology will open the door to higher value byproducts.

Switchgrass is a perennial crop up to 9 feet tall with roots just as deep. Ceres has released two switchgrass seed varieties, EG 1101 and EG 1102, under its Blade Energy Crops label. A “demonstration level” switchgrass bio-refinery is moving forward in Alabama.

Switchgrass production in California is in the test trial stage. The University of California is conducting a handful of trials to determine if the crop is suitable in California’s climate. Ceres has no immediate plans to build a switchgrass bio-refinery in California.

Driving the speeding biofuels train is the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, a taxpayer funded law that mandates U.S. production of 36 billion gallons of alternative fuels annually by 2022. In 2007, biofuels totaled less than 5 billion gallons.

The corn-based ethanol industry has almost reached its potential at about 15 billion bushels of corn annually. Achieving the energy act’s gargantuan goal will require massive amounts of biomass for conversion into cellulosic ethanol. About 165 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually would be required to help achieve the alternative energy requirement, Hardimon says. One ton of biomass produces about 100 gallons of cellulosic ethanol.

In the food-versus-fuel debate Hardimon contends that biomass can be grown in “underutilized areas plus areas that should be diverted for various reasons.” About eight million acres of dedicated energy crops yielding 20 tons per acre (2,000 gallons) would be required annually.

Biomass production costs are lower than corn. “The most important factor to control biomass costs for cellulosic is transportation costs,” Hardimon told World Ag Expo attendees. For efficiency, biomass crops should be grown within 30 to 40 miles of a biomass facility. A 50-million-gallon biomass processing facility requires about 1,500 tons of biomass daily, Hardimon said.

Primafuel’s technology research includes a biomaterials lab in California, microalgae lab in Israel, thermo chemical lab in Sweden, and an engineering implementation team in Kansas. Rayul Iyer supports upgrading existing bio-refineries to maximize biomass’ total value.

While a bushel of corn yields about 2.7 gallons of ethanol plus the byproduct distiller’s grain, Primafuel’s vision is extracting higher value products during the ethanol distilling process.

Primafuel has technology where equipment is attached to an existing ethanol facility. Iyer said the upgrade transitions the corn ethanol plant into tomorrow’s bio-refinery by extracting high-value compounds including corn oil and fats and oils.

Fats and oils bring in higher dollars than sugars and proteins, Iyer explained. Some fat can produce food grade corn oil, biodiesel, high-value nutraceuticals (medicinal extracts), and biopolymers.

“An ethanol facility’s bottom-line profit margin can increase 20 percent to 30 percent when corn oil is extracted,” Iyer said. Nutraceutical compounds are valued up to thousands of dollars per pound.

Primafuel has focused on algae production for the pharmaceutical market and is now focusing on algae for fuel.

“Within five or six years algae production costs should be at a point where fuel from algae is possible,” Iyer said.

Thorson Bailey of the Ag Biomass Council threw his support behind biofuels production under the condition that the food chain isn’t jeopardized.

“Biomass is a hard business to be in. Producing biomass is an expensive way to produce cheap energy,” Bailey said.

Fierce competition exists from a multitude of cellulosic and algae research companies seeking huge capital investments, Iyer says. Some oil companies are quickly investing in biofuels to help regain market share. Ethanol has replaced 10 percent of the fuel supply in the U.S. compared to about 50 percent in Brazil.

“In the last year we’ve seen $300 to $400 million in private capital from California-based companies for algae (development),” Iyer said. “Half a billion of research and development money goes a long way.”

Weiss noted, “There’s a lot of work underway on the issue of developing alternative fuels without impacting food production. I don’t think it’s a conflict of food-versus-fuel; I think it’s about efforts to improve food production and alternative fuels.”


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