Que SARA, será (whatever is sustainable, will be): sorghum, water and biofuels

April 13, 2012 |

There’s water, water everywhere, hardly a drop to use. The latest on Sustainable, Affordable, Reliable, Available biomass feedstocks that keep down the stress on our water tables.

Among the compelling presentations at ABLC this month, Daphne Preuss, CEO of Chromatin, one of the leading seed developers, gave one of the real waker-uppers, this on feedstock and water.

Feedstock. That’s right, the “that which without, you go nowhere” friend of bioenergy.

The feedstock problem, or is it opportunity?

The basic dilemma in perennial biomass crops is well understood. There’s established demand in depth for animal feed. There’s rising population, eating more meat per capita than ever. There’s rising energy use per capita. And, new applications are flourishing that use biomass crops in energy, fuel and renewable chemicals.

So much pressure on biomass, that Chromatin is projecting global demand at 600 million tons per year by 2020, and 1 billion tons by 2030, requiring 600 million tons per year of new, dedicated biomass crops alone to reach the 2030 figure.

The breakdown includes 80 million tons for cellulosic fuels, 170 million tons for US heat and power, 50 million tons for EU power, 150 million tons for chemicals and 150 million tons (or more) for animal feed.

It’s the SARA dilemma. Where will all the sustainable, affordable, reliable, available feedstock come from, anyway?

Note that “affordable” criterion. We’ll need to come back to that in a minute.

But most critically, where is all the water going to come from?

As we do in Digestville, let’s look at the data.

The Water problem

Freshwater is always in short supply, Mother Nature set it up that way. She gave 97.5 percent of all the water to the fish, in the form of salt water. Freshwater, which we share with birds, plenty of mammals, and the terrestrial plant kingdom, gets a whopping 2.5 percent market share. And 98.8 percent of that is trapped in ice and groundwater. Leaving 0.3 percent lying around in lakes and rivers.

How much is that? Well, imagine that all the world’s water supply were contained in a quart of milk. One drop, that’s available surface freshwater.

Makes you understand why, for example, the whales and the dolphins headed back for the salt water. Clever ones, those cetaceans.

So, we dig wells to tap groundwater . And so do plants, using their root structure, and a lot more voraciously than we do. Today, 90 percent of all freshwater consumption is for today’s agriculture. Industry uses a lot, too. 11600 liters to make a pair of blue jeans, for example. To use even an eco-friendlier industrial example, a Nissan Leaf based on coal-power will use up 1.6 million liters of water per year, doubling the water consumption of a US family of four with every purchase of a plug-in electric. (Ahem, making the case for more solar and wind power, please.)

So, you get the picture. Water, water everywhere, hardly a drop to use.

So, where does Chromatin figure in all of this? The company develops traits for a variety of crops, including work in sugarcane that is licensed to Syngenta, but has retained all the rights in sorghum for itself.  Chromatin drives value by customizing proprietary sorghum, for a crop that is already at global scale, with 500 millions tons grown annually on 100 million acres worldwide.

In addition to being a high-biomass product, enhanced sorghum is stingy on water. Producing up to three times as much biomass as corn for the same amount of water.

Using sorghum for a 50,000 acre project:, instead of irrigated sugarcane, saves enough water to meet the annual needs of a city of 1 – 2 million.

The pricing challenge

One of the most compelling reasons for paying attention to high-yield, low-water crops such as sorghum is the pricing problem.

Put simply, cellulosic fuels, since they need to be low-priced in order to tap that vast market, are the caboose of the train when it comes to the price that project developers can pay for feedstock.

According to Chromatin, the USDA projected price for animal feed will be in the $150 per ton range for 2013-2020, and prices are already north of $200 per ton in the Middle East and parts of Asia. EU power producers, facing renewable mandates, are looking at paying, even today, $150-$200 per ton for biomass feedstocks, costs which can be simply passed on to customers, buried somewhere in the power bill (not emblazoned on the street corner, like fuel costs).

In the US, cellulosic fuel producers expect, hope and pray to pay in the $50-$70 per ton range for feedstock. So, its not hard to imagine that they will not be getting, er, the first tons out of the hopper.

The abundance challenge

As Jack Oswald, CEO of SynGest, pointed out some time ago is his “Cornucopia”  presentation, we have the prejudice that scarcity drives sustainable development because it makes us think more about being responsible stewards of the environment, and tapping renewable resources.

All true, and all well and good, but scarcity drives up the price of feedstocks, and competition for feedstock is what is driving, first, the problem of developing cellulosic biofuels and two, is causing so much tension between the biofuels, environmental and animal feed communities.

Abundance, said Oswald, is the solution. Not having just enough, but having more than enough. That’s what drives low-cost feedstocks, which in turn drive low-cost alternative technologies such as renewable fuel.

To have biomass in abundance, driving down water usage is critical. That’s why companies like Chromatin, Ceres, Mendel and others are working do hard on water-related issues – helping plants to do more with less.

It will take more than 70 million acres of new agriculture to meet all the new demand for biomass, says Chromatin’s Preuss. That’s a huge footprint – all of US corn production requires around 90 million – but sustainable if the underlying water and nutrient usage is sustainable. Plenty of atmospheric CO2 out there, that’s for sure, that’s one component we don;t have to worry much about running out of any time soon. More’s the pity.

Chromatin’s ABLC presentation can be seen, here.

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