Asset Management, Bioenergy

Ethanol Fuel from Genetically Modified Shrub

A plan to use genetically modified (GM) willow to make ethanol will be among the first GM projects submitted for approval after the New Zealand Government’s moratorium on field trials was lifted.

Auckland, New Zealand – November 4, 2003 [] AgriGenesis, the plant division of Auckland, NewZealand-based Genesis Research and Development, intends to genetically modify a quick-growing shrub that it claims would be ideal for fermenting into ethanol to blend with petroleum fuel. The moratorium on field trials of GM crops ended at midnight on October 29. Now planting of the willow has to be approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority. Senior scientist Sean Simpson said that the New Zealand Government had recently approved the blending of ethanol with petroleum fuel at the rate of 10 percent, which, if applied across New Zealand, would be the equivalent of taking 200,000 cars off the road. According to Simpson, the GM willow’s extra growth would be “several fold” more than non-GM plants, the best of which produced up to 30 tons a hectare of harvestable growth. “The net environmental benefits are huge,” said Simpson. “Through the ethanol process we will get greener, more environmentally friendly carbon-neutral fuel and the plants will regenerate marginal land. We’re not talking about putting this into the food chain.” The willow would be modified so it increased its biomass by absorbing more atmospheric carbon. AgriGenesis maintains that the possibility of genetic cross-pollination would be prevented by the use of female-only plants, which would be unable to develop flowers. “It is the ideal crop for the Government to lead off the post-moratorium GM era with,” said AgriGenesis Chief Executive Peter Lee. “New Zealand would be a world leader in the next generation of sustainable energy.” Growing to more than two meters within three years of planting, the willow could be harvested every two years for up to 20 years. Lee said that the crops could be grown on marginal farmland and would suit a region seeking a new industry. But a site had not yet been selected. “We’re looking for a region that could contemplate putting in a biomass-to-ethanol processing plant and that could organize its farmers to plant this crop,” said Lee. AgriGenesis would also introduce an industrial partner to the region but the drive to make the industry succeed would have to come from the region. “It is going to be good for their economy and good for jobs,” said Lee. “If you’re producing a cheap energy source, other industries are going to be attracted to the region.” Lee said that discussions with the Economic Development Ministry were still informal; and a processing plant was likely to cost in the low tens of millions of New Zealand dollars. AgriGenesis was also looking at building a pilot ethanol processing plant with a plantation, so farmers, regional government and industry investors could see how it worked.