Cadillac sugars, Chevrolet prices

April 22, 2011 |

A new generation of technologists aim high in value, low in cost, as the race for sugars to process into biofuels amps up a notch or three

“You know, we hear numbers like this,” said Daphne Preuss, the CEO of Chromatin, “70 million new acres of cultivation by 2030 to meet all our expected global needs for fuel, feed, fiber and food. Or 20 million acres by 2020. 2020? That’s eight planting seasons away. And 70 million by 2030? That’s all the rice in China, or all the wheat in Russia. I think we can do it, but sometimes I think we trivialize the problem.”

There’s truth in that. At the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference and typically in the Digest, we focus on the downstream markets and the processing technologies. We think more about gallons per ton of biomass than tons of biomass per acre, or tons of accessible sugars per acre.

Why? As Tom Lyons, chief scientific officer of BioTork observed, “if you have a great processing technology, a lot of biomass can become a low-cost source of sugars. And in an industry where we are taking one commodity and processing it into another commodity, the part in the middle, the processing technology, is the main variable that you can have the most impact on.”

The low-rent land problem

But there is the problem of biomass yield, and the concentration of sugars in that yield, and the problem of finding the right land – or enough land for all the things we need to do with land. There is what Richard Hamilton, CEO of Ceres, identifies as the urgency of finding low-rent land, and making sure it stays low rent.

There is also the problem of recalcitrance, which is to say the armor with which a plant protects its sugars from pests, or the magic bugs developed by the sorcerors of synthetic biology.

Then there is the problem, when finally a crop is found that can be converted well enough, and grown fast enough, and concentrates sugar well enough, of finding a patch of the earth large enough that it likes to grow in at all. Those pesky plants have a funny way of liking the lands of sun and rain, and people have a funny way of collecting in large numbers in temperate climates.

Fast growers, slow changers

But here is something that really can drive you crazy. That wonder of sugar concentration and growth rate – our friend the sugar cane – is not exactly a wonder of stability in the depths of its genome, and can be tough to work with and improve, and getting a new trait introduced in cane to improve yield can take more than a decade.

Which of course is a pretty fast timeline compared to say, the timelines for introducing new traits in, say, trees.

So when we think about those millions of new acres that have to be planted to meet goals that are just eight, or maybe a couple of dozen planting seasons away, we might want to be thinking about cycles of trait enhancement, and based on the way that traditional agriculture has been practiced, we might have one cycle, or two, for woody biomass or cane.

For one trait at a time improvement, that doesn’t bode well for getting lots and lots more yield per acre. The traditional solution? As Ganesh Kishore, CEO of the Malaysian Life Sciences Fund observed this week at ABLC, “most of the gains in productivity over the years have been made by increasing the density, growing four plants where you used to grow one, and pouring on the fertilizer.”

Well, that’s how you get more people into a Tokyo bullet train, or a Manhattan restaurant, but if there is anything that the we can learn in the bioenergy revolution from the sinking of the Titanic, is it that wishing more people into an insufficient number of lifeboats, or today’s plants into the available acres, is ultimately not a solution that scales anywhere near as fast as we might need it.

Big biofuels and sugar shock

Yesterday at the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference, the International Energy Agency debuted a remarkable Biofuels Technology Roadmap which identified an opportunity to produce up to $13 trillion in biofuels by the year 2050. Let’s put that into perspective – That’s $260 billion in orders for each of the 50 Hottest producers in bioenergy, more than enough sales volume to power a monster IPO event for each of them. That’s 50 Chevrons. Heck, that’s 50 Finlands. An emporium of opportunity.

But the IEA concluded that it will take 100 million hectares of new land in production, or roughly 250 million acres. That’s more than all the land for all the tea in China, or the tea and the rice, or the wheat in Russia. That’s the cultivation platform of American grain. Is there enough land for all those energy crops, with enough left over for all the food that will be needed for all those three billion more mouths expecting to be fed by 2050?

Well, the answer is probably yes – and those population forecasts start to come down after 2050 as lower birth rates begin to have their effect. But its not a given thing that the acreage will be exactly, say, where its convenient to Sweden, or convenient to the G-20, or to the North as a whole. Those lands of sun and rain are found in the tropics, and simply swapping energy dependence on the Middle East for crop dependence on the Tropics is not exactly what the advocates of energy security had in mind.

Our takeaway from the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference? The chase for low-cost sugars will need a series of accelerators, and game changers, and something more than juicing the yields with crop density and flagons of fertilizer is called for.

Bring on the game changers

Accordingly, the 450 or so delegates to ABLC, though blessed with an array of world-class presentations at all points on the biofuels development spectrum from policy to finance to technology and markets, were especially fortunate to have companies like Proterro, Ceres, and Chromatin on hand with their game changing approaches to getting more sugars into the clutches of the magic enzymes and magic bugs that the processing companies are bringing forward, or clean biomass for the advanced gasifiers and catalysts that are popping up with welcome frequency.

Kef Kasdin, Proterro’s CEO, pooh-poohed the idea that there is a sudden revolution in feedstock technologies. “If you have been going to some of the more technical conferences, you’ll know that these ideas have been worked on for quite some time by a lot of talented people. But its true that more of their ideas are becoming commercial, and that the pieces are starting to come together into more complex and complete solutions.”

For example, take Proterro’s cyanobacteria, which naturally detects an increase in the salt concentration in water – such as those evolutionary moments when the shallow, life-teeming, brackish pond is drying up – and responds by making sucrose as a form of osmotic protection – basically a biohazard suit made of sugar.

What is Proterro doing? Locating that trigger in the genome, swapping it for a trigger that Proterro can control, and amping up the sucrose producing response. Voila, a sugar producing cell without all the inconvenience of encasing the sugars in a bunch of cellulose and lignin. Then, developing a solid-phase bioreactor that hosts those cyanobacteria. Proven at scale? Not yet. Game changing? If its viable and scalable,  for sure. Think of it, just for starters, as a bypass of all those problems with a coming shortage of phosphorus that we have been lately discussing in the Digest’s pages. No biomass, no need for the phosphorus found in the backbone of each cell’s DNA.

“One path to low cost sugars is not hard to figure out,” Kasdin observed at ABLC this week. “Take any needless cost that you incur as you get to sugar. All that biomass that you grow that isn’t sugar, costly to grow, to harvest, to move, and to get around.”

Ceres is developing traits – salt tolerance, nitrogen take up, sugar concentration, water efficiency. Then there’s Chromatin, which has developed a technology based in gene stacking that delivers not one improvement trait at a time into a genome, but as many as eight.

The four-month tree

“Here’s seed, good luck, that’s not going to cut it anymore” said Daphne Preuss, “or simply making tons of biomass that doesn’t have what you need in BTUs or sugars. We have to move to biomass, and we see the right combination of characteristics in sorghum, which is the platform we are developing ourselves and not licensing. Right now, hardwood is around 8400 BTUs and just out of the gate sorghum is 7900, we think we can improve that to be around where hardwood is.

“But its like a 4-month tree, and then you are ready for harvest. Plus, I have never met a sorghum-hugger.”

No sorghum huggers, indeed, but well might we hug such a helpful plant, or spare a hug for Ceresian switchgrass – or exchange a warm handshake with Proterro’s cyanobacteria, if we happen to find ourselves in 2050 with just enough sugar to make all that fuel, and we didn’t need to find all that land in someone else’s undiscovered country.

Sweet prospects

Time will tell if these are the technologies that scale, the companies that “win” – but for sure, the race is on for Cadillac sugars at Chevy prices, and cheerleaders we ought be for all the magic that they wring out of synthetic biology – sweet indeed is the prospect of all that sugar.

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