Whatever Happened to Jatropha, and All Those Other Wonder Feedstocks? Part 1

As we begin to prepare for the annual Advanced Bioeconomy Feedstocks & Supply Chain event in Miami this June, you might find yourself asking whatever happened to some of the feedstock darlings like jatropha. If jatropha faltered, never mind, went the argument, we’ll always have switchgrass. Or giant miscanthus, or pongamia, or poplar, or camelina. The list could get really long.

The good news is that a six-year Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) study on the viability of different bioenergy feedstocks recently demonstrated that perennial cropping systems such as switchgrass, giant miscanthus, poplar, native grasses, and prairie can yield as much biomass as corn stover.

The study is significant for beginning to address one of the biofuel industry’s biggest questions: can environmentally beneficial crops produce enough biomass to make their conversion to ethanol efficient and economical?

The not-so-good news is that some of the companies developing energy crops have diverted away from renewable fuels, or slowed down commercialization efforts. Some have disappeared altogether. Where’s Valcent, which once proudly claimed it could produce up to 250,000 gallons of photosynthetic algae per acre until it was pointed out that you don’t get enough photons to achieve that, no matter what the technology.

In general, you’d be surprised how much activity is ongoing. Let’s take a look.

Corn Stove, Bagasse, Wheat Stalks

Last month, Comet Biorefining announced at ABLC 2016 the location of its commercial-scale biomass-derived sugar facility in the TransAlta Energy Park in Sarnia, Ontario. The 60 million pounds per year plant will come online in 2018 producing dextrose sugar from locally-sourced corn stover and wheat straw. Corn stover consists of residues left in the field after harvest including stalks, leaves, husks and cobs.

Earlier that month, Bioindustrial Innovation Canada concluded a Phase 2 assessment that “there is sufficient economic value with available technologies to support the development of a commercial plant to produce cellulosic sugar and co-products in southwestern Ontario utilizing locally-harvested corn stover. “

And last month, we reported on a €110 million joint venture cellulosic ethanol project of Chempolis Ltd and Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) is moving towards construction after getting approval from NRL’s board. The project is expected to come online by 2019. The bamboo-based facility will be located in Assam, producing 49,000 metric tons of ethanol annually (15 million US gallons per year, or 56 million liters) for supply to the country’s Eastern and Northeastern markets that are not so easily supplied by sugarcane mills. With government permissions expected next week and inclusion of the project in ‘Hydrocarbon Vision 2030 for Northeast’, the companies expect work on the project to start shortly. Co-production of furfural and acetic acid is also in the cards.

Biomass Sorghum

In January, we reported that a team of researchers led by faculty at the University of Georgia have received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find new ways of combating Johnsongrass, one of the most widespread and troublesome agricultural weeds in the world.

Native to the Mediterranean region, Johnsongrass has spread across every continent except Antarctica. It was introduced to the U.S. in the 1800s as a forage crop, but it quickly spread into surrounding farmland and natural environments, where it continues to cause millions of dollars in lost agricultural revenue each year, according to the USDA.

But the researchers also hope that learning more about the fundamental structures that give Johnsongrass its unusual resilience will pave the way for new genetic tools to improve useful plants, such as sorghum, a close relative of Johnsongrass that is grown widely for food, animal fodder and as a source of biofuel.

And last December, we relayed the news that the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center announced that it will be part of a major collaborative research project to improve sorghum’s productivity under resource-limited conditions. The research should lead to strategies to increase plant biomass as well as more water use- and nutrient-efficient sorghum crop systems. The five-year $13.5 million project is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and will be led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Using a systems approach, researchers will investigate sorghum genetics as well as the soil microbes that interact with plants. The work takes advantage of advances in marker-assisted breeding, metagenomics and computational genomic analysis. Geneticists will search for and study sorghum varieties that use water and nitrogen more efficiently under limited water or nitrogen conditions. At the same time, microbiologists will identify and characterize soil microbes that interact with and benefit sorghum, such as by enhancing nutrient uptake, water-use efficiency and disease protection.

Last September, Aemetis announced the harvesting of 12- to 15-foot tall biomass sorghum grown in Central California that was produced using proprietary Nexsteppe seed genetics. Biomass Sorghum is a feedstock for low carbon advanced biofuels. The 20 acre demonstration crop of biomass sorghum was planted, grown, and harvested by Aemetis in approximately 90 days, validating the potential use of biomass crops for the production of lower-carbon, advanced biofuels or as a rotational crop in California. The water supply for the biomass sorghum crop was lower-quality pump water containing salts that typically damage crops. The project was located in the western San Joaquin Valley which has received a low water allocation from state and federal sources for the past several years.

In addition to the biomass sorghum demonstration, Aemetis is also a participant in the California In-State Sorghum program (CISS) through a $3 million grant awarded by the California Energy Commission.  The CISS program combines research and market development to support the in-state growth of grain sorghum as a reliable low-carbon feedstock for California’s ethanol producers.  The CISS program has just completed the first harvest of grain sorghum at the CSU Fresno International Center for Water Technology.

Coming up in Part Two of this feedstock overview, we’ll look at camelina, forest waste, and jatropha.

This article was originally published in Biofuels Digest and was republished with permission.





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