The Sherpas: 7 biofuels feedstock developers clearing paths to the summit

October 9, 2012 |

Sherpas – the high-altitude companions that see Himalayan hopefuls safely to the top (and back again).

Every great biofuels technology has its own companion feedstock strategy – with unique advantages and technical challenges.

Who’s got what it takes to be a great Sherpa, providing that feedstock or intermediates edge that puts a processing technology first on the Summit? Who’s got speed and capacity?

We observed earlier that, while the critical expansion steps in biofuels scale-up are often described as the Valley of Death – the last steps are more like the mountaineering Death Zone above 8,000 meters – short on oxygen, fouling weather about, grueling steps in the thin air, and technical challenges abounding. The true winners know, as Everest veteran Ed Viesturs observed, “there are no shortcuts to the top.”

No processing technology makes it to the Summit without its trusty feedstock partner – the unsung Sherpas that provide the energy grasses and canes, oilseed crops, algae, or low-cost renewable sugars. In our 50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy, high-rankers like Amyris, Gevo, LS9, POET, Enerkem, LanzaTech and ZeaChem would be toast without affordable feedstock.

Today, we look at 7 companies that exemplify the Sherpa way. And, on Tuesday, October 30th, they’ll join us on stage at Advanced Biofuels Markets, to update on the latest on their progress in the race for scale.


Why a Sherpa? Developing high-yield energy canes and grasses with advanced traits such as drought-tolerance – notably, sweet sorghum that it is deploying as a rotation crop for Brazilian sugar cane, making it possible for Brazilian producers to continue to make sugar during a canefield’s down-months.

The latest from base camp: In September, for biomass markets, Ceres unveiled the next generation of improvements in its switchgrass product line — the first hybrid switchgrass developed for bioenergy. These pre-commercial products represent an important step in switchgrass plant breeding and have shown significant yield increases over current products. Ceres product developers also highlighted seeded miscanthus varieties, which promise multi-fold reductions in establishment costs over competing miscanthus types.

Earlier this year, Ceres reported that their sorghum hybrids were successfully processed into renewable diesel by Amyris, under a U.S. DOE grant. Amyris is expected to present summary of the results at the 34th Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The pilot-scale project evaluated both sugars and biomass from Ceres’ sweet sorghum hybrids grown in Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana and Tennessee.  The sorghum derived syrup was processed by Amyris at its California pilot facility into its trademarked product, Biofene.

Watch out for: Brazilian sugarcane producers – will they have the bandwidth to deploy the technology at scale, while also mechanizing their harvesting technologies and exploring opportunities with sugarcane bagasse. Financing help through the Brazilian government could be key.

On stage at ABM to update, October 30. CEO Richard Hamilton


Why a Sherpa? Developing high-yield biomass sorghum for the power, fuels and chemicals markets – has a unique gene-stacking technology that can insert multiple new traits in target crops, dramatically shortening the cycle time from lab to field.

The latest from base camp: Earlier this year, Chromatin scored 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 (ARPA-E). The award funds a three-year program to develop new varieties of sweet sorghum for use as an energy-rich, low cost feedstock for transportation fuels.

Regarding sorghum itself, in May the Environmental Protection Agency issued a Notice of Data Availability to release its lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) analysis of ethanol produced from grain sorghum. The EPA analysis found that ethanol produced from grain sorghum has an estimated lifecycle GHG emissions reduction of 32 percent compared to gasoline. Evidence also indicates that when biogas is used in conjunction with combined heat and power technology, grain sorghum ethanol achieves a 53 percent reduction in greenhouse gas relative to gasoline. That qualifies sorghum-based ethanol for the advanced biofuels pool.

Meanwhile, Constellation Energy and Chromatin have announced a memorandum of understanding to supply two California power plants with a sustainable supply of renewable biomass grown specifically for use as fuel in the plants.

Watch out for: Renewable power mandates could help push aggressive planting schedules, by providing Chromatin with long-term, financeable biomass contracts. In this context, the Constellation trials will be closely watched.

On stage at ABM to update, October 30. CEO Daphne Preuss


Why a Sherpa? A developer of high-performance, low-cost renewable sugars using synthetic biology – generating sugars, using a modified cyanobacteria to make sucrose directly from CO2, water, nutrients and sunlight instead of growing biomass and extracting sugars therefrom. Proterro has taken cyanobacteria that naturally produce sucrose—and only sucrose— and successfully genetically engineered them so that they secrete the sucrose in a continuous, high-yield process.

The latest from base camp: This spring, Proterro reported that it “has successfully and consistently demonstrated high sucrose productivity in its own laboratory, as well as in the field, at two independent greenhouse sites, even when we deliberately introduced microbial contamination into the photobioreactors the cyanobacteria coexisted with these other organisms and sucrose productivity did not diminish.” The company said that the field trials confirmed that Proterro can develop sucrose at a cost, inclusive of capital costs, that is already competitive with today’s cost of alternative sources of sugar, and are on a promising path to sub-10-cent sucrose.”

Watch out for: The company will shortly begin a transition towards larger photobioreactors and scale. Can they maintain the momentum towards sub-10 cent sugars? That’s a price point where an avalanche of funding and interest will kick in.

On stage at ABM to update, October 30. CEO Kef Kasdin

SG Biofuels

Why a Sherpa? A developer of high-performing energy crops with improved yields and profitability, currently focused on “jatropha 2.0”, based on an intensive breeding and selection program identifies and develops productive, regionally adapted material from an extensive array of genetic diversity.

The latest from base camp: The company’s been on a building program – opening a 60,000 square foot genomics research center in San Diego, California; establishing of a seed production facility in Guatemala where the company is scaling its operational capacity to support a planned 10,000 hectare commercial pilot in Guatemala. Also, deployment of three additional JMax Knowledge Centers in Brazil and four in India, where the company will advance hundreds of its elite hybrid varieties of Jatropha.

Watch out for: Jatropha 1.0 has had a rough ride – data from SG Biofuels 10,000 hectare commercial pilot will tell us much about whether Jatropha 2.0 is the answer – or some other, longer-term jatropha 3.0 solution.

On stage at ABM to update, October 30. CEO Kirk Haney


Why a Sherpa? A developer of renewable oils for a broad array of markets – foods, dielectric fluids, chemicals, and fuels. Produces its tailored oils from a platform based on heterotrophic (non photosynthetic algae) grown in fermenters.

The latest from base camp: Another company on a building program. In June, Solazyme commissioned a 2 million liter per year integrated biorefinery (IBR) in Peoria, Illinois, to produce algal oil. Also in June, Solazyme and Bunge broke ground on a 100,000 metric ton renewable oil production facility adjacent to Bunge’s Moema sugarcane mill in Brazil. Construction started on schedule and the plant is targeted to be operational in the fourth quarter of 2013.

Watch out for: After Gevo and Amyris had stumbles at the summit, all eyes will be on productivity from the 100,000 metric tonne facility in Brazil.

On stage at ABM to update, October 30. CEO Jonathan Wolfson

Sweetwater Energy

Why a Sherpa? A developer of low-cost renewable sugars using multiple sources – from agricultural residues to harvested wood for biofuel, biochemical and bioplastics refineries, generating separate and concentrated individual streams of C5 and C6 sugars that allow a single processing site to serve the needs of multiple customers.

The latest from base camp: Late last month, Sweetwater tapped Merrick & Company to engineer its commercial demonstration cellulosic sugar-production facilities in Rochester, NY. Earlier this year, Sweetwater began operation of its pilot-scale cellulosic sugar processing facility at the same location. The news followed a successful, oversubscribed Series A funding round that raised $9 million, although the original target was only $5 million.

In April, Sweetwater Energy entered into a strategic partnership with BioGasol to enhance sugar extraction from biomass using BioGasol’s pretreatment technology, Carbofrac, to enhance Sweetwater’s cellulosic processes.

Watch out for: We’ll be awaiting news on the timelines for Sweetwater to commission its commercial demonstration.

On stage at ABM to update, October 30. CEO Arunas Chesonis


Why a Sherpa? A developer of low-cost cellulosic sugars (and lignin), using concentrated hydrochloric acid hydrolysis, producing concentrated streams of greater than 90% monomeric sugars, containing a variety of hexoses and pentoses. Virdia’s sugars contain no inhibitors and ferment well when compared to corn or cane sugars. The sugars have negligible degradation products such as furfurals, HMF, acetic acid and soluble phenolic compounds.

The latest from base camp: In April, Virdia opened its demonstration facility at a new technology center in Danville, Virginia. The opening closely followed news that drop-in aviation biofuels made from drop-in cellulosic pine tree sugars “in a partnership between Virent and Virdia, “passed under conditions where conventional jet fuels would fail,” according to engineers at US Air Force test facilities.

All that capped a big spring for Virdia, which raised over $20 million from insiders, Khosla Ventures, Burrill & Company and Tamar Ventures, and a $10 million in a venture debt deal with Triple Point Capital. Virdia also landed a $75 million deal with the Mississippi Development Authority to build manufacturing plants in the state.

Watch out for: Virdia’s had a big year – can they maintain momentum and score partnerships that take its CASE technology to full commercial scale. We’ll know a lot in the next 14 months.

On stage at ABM to update, October 31. CEO Philippe Lavielle

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