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The 7 Paths of the New Agriculture

| January 5, 2012

Biofuels booming? It’s not just the new transformative processing technologies, it’s the new agriculture.

Here’s what’s going on, by whom, and where, when and why.

In the bioenergy business, no one has nightmares, they have feedstock-mares.

You wake up, sweating and panting and shaken, with the unmistakeable sensation that your feedstock of choice is unavailable, unaffordable, unsustainable, or unreliable.

But the New Agriculture has arisen in recent years, with new solutions to the old dilemma: how do you produce, and afford, and haul, and utilize enough feedstock to make an integrated biorefinery work? How do you grow enough for yourself, without displacing the other guy?

There are 7 Paths in the New Agriculture.

1. New Crops and second harvests.

Bringing a new high-yield crop to growers, or a crop that has worked spectacularly well elsewhere and now works in local conditions. Or, increasingly, bringing new rotation crops, or used in place of cover crops to bring in a second harvest.

This path is in the news today in two locations.

In Iowa, DuPont and NexSteppe have entered into a collaboration to develop sweet sorghum and high biomass sorghum hybrids in order to create additional feedstock options for biofuels, biopower and biobased products. Under the agreement, DuPont has made an equity investment in NexSteppe, and through its Pioneer Hi-Bred business, will provide knowledge, resources and advanced technologies to help NexSteppe accelerate the breeding and commercialization of new hybrids of these crops in the United States and Brazil.

In Illinois, a $5.7-million contract under the PETRO (Plants Engineered To Replace Oil) program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy was awarded to Chromatin, Inc.

The award will fund a three-year program to develop new varieties of sweet sorghum for use as an energy-rich, low cost feedstock for transportation fuels. Chromatin is working to develop non-food varieties of sorghum that have higher energy content to produce low-cost and renewable transportation fuel, high value chemicals and a high-BTU source of biopower. Sweet sorghum can produce very high biomass yields with less water and fewer chemical inputs than major food crops and is grown on land that is not devoted to food production.

2. Bagasse, stover and other residues.

In the case of crop residues like sugarcane bagasse or corn stover, the grower has already paid for all of the inputs. The trick is generally in two parts – how do you aggregate it, and how do you affordably process it.

Most of the attention is in the lab, and on the former – and that’s what the cellulosic biofuels R&D effort is generally all about. Unlocking the fermentable sugars trapped in cellulose or hemicellulose (such as stalks and leaves), or in the residual bagasse left over after sugar is pressed from cane. Or finding something to make from lignin that also makes money. Codexis and Cobalt are hard at work on bagasse; POET, Abengoa are working (among others) on stover. Mascoma and American Process are working on woody biomass.

But let’s not overlook the problem of aggregating all that biomass traditionally left on the field. For example, there’s hardly a baler in the state of Iowa because they use corn combines for harvest, but you need baling equipment to pick up and haul stover.

3. Supertraits and super yields.

If new crops are unavailable, and residues exhausted, why not try to get more productivity out of the overall plant. In the old agriculture, there was double-cross hybridization to put more vigor into a plant, and there have been additional inputs such as added nitrogen, to assist with the growing cycle.

But in the new agriculture, there are traits that confer drought-tolerance, heat-tolerance, pest- or pesticide-tolerance.

Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture deregulated MON 87460, Monsanto’s first-generation drought-tolerant trait for corn.  Drought-tolerant corn is projected to be introduced as part of an overall system that would offer farmers improved genetics, agronomic practices and the drought trait. Monsanto plans to conduct on-farm trials in 2012 to give farmers experience with the product, while generating data to help inform the company’s commercial decisions.

The drought-tolerant trait is part of Monsanto’s Yield and Stress collaboration in plant biotechnology with Germany-based BASF.

In specific bioenergy crops, companies such as Ceres (switchgrass, energy cane in the Blade energy crop family) and Mendel Biotechnologies (miscanthus) have been garnering the most attention as they bring new traits forward for the new integrated biorefineries utilizing energy crops.

4. The Waste Lands.

If all the above strategies are already used, or unavailable, why not bring lands into production that have previously be un-productive. This is closely related to the “super traits” pathway – in fact, many of the same companies, such as Ceres, are hard at work on traits such as salt-tolerance that will open up lands with previously unsuitable soils or water sources. But there are also companies such as SG Biofuels, working on developing non-food, extremophile crops like jatropha that can better handle poor soils and low rainfall, through its JMAX portfolio.

5. The Living Bioprocessor.

One of the more interesting pathways in the New Agriculture has been developed by Syngenta, with its Enogen line of corn seeds. Enogen is that recently approved, transgenic corn, grown specifically for biofuels production, containing corn amylase – a special set of enzymes that activate at the dry-grind mill, after the corn kernels have been harvested. Those enzymes begin the pretreatment process – essentially, they soften up the corn.

What makes that process transformative is that the enzymes are grown by Mother Nature as the crop grows. No need to grow them in a fermentation tank, using (say) fossil fuel inputs. No need to transport the enzymes to the processing plants. Pre-treatment costs come down, perhaps dramatically, plus enzyme loads.

OK, that’s first generation corn ethanol. What about cellulosic biofuels – can the same thing be done with corn stover? That’s what Agrivida is up to.

“We are expressing all the cell wall degrading systems in the plant,” explains Agrivida CEO Michael Raab, “as the core part of our technology. We can control the activity of those enzymes so that in the plant we can express all the enzymes in dormant form. After harvest, we activate the enzymes in the material, so you don’t have to pretreat in the same way. It makes the process lower temperature, with a moderate PH, and takes out a lot of capital costs and those high costs of dilute acid pretreatment. Also, we really reduce the enzyme loading.”

6. Aquafarming.

If none of the above will do, look beyond the land and towards the water, and especially the sea. There but be 100 companies doing development on open-pond, or closed bioreactor microalgae. Sapphire Energy and Aurora Algae are getting well down the road with their technologies – Aurora just opening their 6-acre demonstration plant in Western Australia, and Sapphire opening their 1 million gallon facility in New Mexico in the first half of the year. OriginOil and MBD Energy are building a system in Australia, Heliae is hard at work in Arizona, just to name a few.

Meanwhile, there’s the hybrid approach of Phycal – growing “skinny algae” ion ponds and them fattening them up for harvest in photo-bioreactors where they feast on a diet of concentrated cassava sugars. Algenol has a unique solution in the deployment stage down in Florida, where they grow micro algae in low-cost plastic bioreactors and ferment in the same step into ethanol.

But, there’s far more in aqua farming than micro algae. There are water-based micro crops, such as the lemna which PetroAlgae is growing, convertible into liquid proteins and carbs for use in fuel processing, or as animal feed. Then, there are the macroalgae, a/k/a/ kelp or seaweed, and Bio Architecture Labs is readying its macro algae ethanol pilot plant.

7. The Biomass Bypass.

If none of the above are your flavor or New Agriculture, then why make biomass as an intermediate at all. Plants use CO2, sunlight and water to make the molecules they need – why not use what plants know, as well as what plants make?

It may sound exotic or strange, but companies like Joule Biotechnologies, with their solar conversion system, are getting closer to launching at demonstration scale this year in Texas, using CO2, sunlight and water (plus a “secret-sauce” nutrient package) to make ethanol, and drop-in renewable diesel. Proterro has also developed a micro-organism capable of making low-cost sugars from CO2, sunlight, water and nutrients.

Then, there’s plant cell culturing. Naturally Scientific is using this process, and waste CO2, to bio-manufacture fermentable sugars and pure vegetable oil (PVO) from plant cell cultures. In the first stage waste CO2, water (either fresh or salt) and light are combined in a photosynthetic reaction to produce sugars (Sucrose and Glucose). This natural sugar can be sold in either crystalline or syrup form, or alternatively used in the second stage of the Naturally Scientific process. This stage converts these sugars to produce pure vegetable oils (PVO) and their derivatives.

Naturally Scientific has constructed a demonstration plant in Nottingham, UK, that is fully operational, producing both sugars and oils. The company is also exploring the development of production at scale in China.

There’s plant cell culturing for food production, as well. At a meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden, arranged by Chalmers University of Technology and the European Science Foundation, the group reviewed technology components are now coming into place in order to realize the concept of cultured meat. This includes a cell source that is possible to use, several alternative processes to turn these cells into muscle cells for meat, and nutrients free of animal components which can be produced from sunlight and carbon dioxide.

The Bottom Line

There are generally two strategies in feedstock these days, that work, in terms of developing new capacity. One, using one of the 7 Pathways of the New Agriculture. Two, finding an existing waste feedstock (e,g, municipal solid waste) so cheap and so odious that someone may even pay you to get rid of it.

Elsewhere, there is a fair amount of capacity built on processing the products of the old Agriculture, but there isn’t going to be any new capacity. And, increasingly, we will see residues and second harvests, super plants, aqua farming and the Biomass Bypass providing a higher and higher percentage of the increasing global demand for food, fuel and feed.

When will the 7 Pathways produce more feedstock than the Old Agriculture? Globally, by 2025 at the latest, following the expected growth in demand.

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