Heard on the Floor: Disruptive Technology, Feedstocks under the microscope at ABLC 2017’s opening day

March 2, 2017 |

By Helena Tavares Kennedy

Special to The Digest

In Washington, ABLC 2017 kicked off at the USDA’s Jefferson Auditorium in the heart of D.C. Remember when your teachers said not to be disruptive in class? Well, the common theme at ABLC’s opening sessions is that being disruptive sounds like a bad thing but is really a good thing. The theme in the early sessions was disruptive technologies – what are they, where are they going and how do we get them there?

While there were big questions, there were big answers, beginning with a panel on The Sustainable Agriculture Imperative. John Pieper from Dupont Industrial Biosciences shared their latest work with cellulosic ethanol in the corn belt and how one of the greater challenges, but most exciting, is how to get sustainable supply chains by ensuring production is not damaging the soil but in fact continuing to build the health of our soils. He noted their recent partnership with the FDA for certification of their process and for training to document soil health in the supply chain for stover removal.

Have you had a KIND bar from Starbucks or fed your dog IAMS lately? Then you’ve had sorghum! Daphne Preuss, CEO of Chromatin, offered updates on sorghum even though she admits it’s not as well known in the U.S. as in other countries. She also offered some good advice on competitive landscapes and said not to think of just your feedstock’s competition but competition that your customers may be looking at that are in totally different feedstock areas. And don’t forget, farmers are also your customer and they need to believe it will be economically good for them too. She also helped bring us all back to reality by noting that optimizing feedstock is great, but it has to grow in the real world where there are lots of things that assault it, like sugarcane aphids and fungal infections.

Delayne Johnson, CEO of QCCP announced they are working with the California Air Resources Board/CARB and Syngenta, as QCCP continues to work towards corn fiber feedstock and ethanol improvements like better nutrition, growth of export markets, and future potentials with enzymes and yeast developments.

Naveen Sikka, CEO of TerViva is taking a $3,000 acre piece of land in Florida and turning it into a $5,000 piece of land. How is that possible? By planting seedlings that add value and can be used for animal feed which is in high demand. He noted that problems won’t be solved by monochromatic planting, as investors want disruptive technologies – something that will help deal with climate change, like nascent land use, environment where many crops are co-existing, no nutrients added, low water, and self feeding ag.

What looks like a crop, harvests like a crop, but is a different kind of crop that can be used for biofuels and protein for animal feed? Carinata! Steven Fabijanski, President and CEO of Agrisoma Biosciences said farmers love carinata since it’s similar to growing corn or soybeans, has the same grain movement through the system, is able to handle large volumes, and can go to scale very quickly with the existing value chain.

“Use what you already have” our mothers often told us, right? Dave Hazlebeck, CEO of Global Algae Innovations is on board with that, as they have been using CO2 from power plant flue gas since 2014 for algae production. He shared some attractive environmental aspects about algae: No runoff, 40 times more per acre than crops planted for animal feed which is leading cause of deforestation, 1,000 acres of algae saves 40,000 crop acres, and huge carbon sequestering and climate change impact. He also shared some attractive human aspects about algae: High paying jobs, lots of different kinds of jobs like engineers, chemists, and scientists. So why don’t we have it all over the place already? Biggest challenge is costs – costs to set it up and for the production process. The good news is that they are now looking to scale up as they have found the point that it makes sense economically and have resolved many of the initial technical issues.

Mid afternoon brought us Sandy Ferguson, Senior Vice President of Conifex, who shared her forestry updates from Canada where their Mackenzie Power Generation Plant powers 20,000 British Columbia homes, mostly from mill and operational residues as the feedstock. And while timber has declined recently due to pest issues, she notes that forestry products are still favorable compared to food derived feedstocks since prices are pretty stable and generally lower. She also announced expansion to the U.S. with their new El Dorado, Arkansas facility. While she sees many challenges, like policy uncertainty, still facing those getting third party investors, you can feel better knowing you are not alone as it seems to be the case for almost any feedstock out there right now.

Sapphire Energy, TerraVia, and Algenol were listed as top 3 algae players as far as commercialization by Lawrence Walmsley, CEO, Culture Biosystems. He highlighted that many algae companies have been moving away from fuels towards health and nutrition that have higher price points. His biggest complaint? We still can’t get enough revenue from paying customers and still heavily rely on investors, many of whom lost interest in early stage companies as they’d rather invest in more established or commercialized companies. His recommended key to overcome? Magical trifecta is maximizing your Biology, Operating Costs and Capital in order to make cultivation of algae economically most efficient.

If you didn’t think the renewable chemicals market was going anywhere, think again. It’s at $49 billion today with expected growth to $84 billion over the next 5 years, according to Jeff Robert, Director of Technology Deployment at Fluid Quip Process Technologies. He focused on cereal grains which won’t be going away anytime soon and have lots of varieties and versatility, and on the biochem side he announced for first time publicly that they are the new front end technology provider for GreenBiologics, for upstream providing a clean sugar stream.

Later in the afternoon, we heard from agencies and institutes, including Gene Lester, National Program Director for the USDA Agricultural Research Service who gave updates on several USDA projects. However, an interesting new one is that when they were going through their library of oily yeasts, they rediscovered switchgrass which is 20% more efficient than what is used to make today’s biodiesel and can supply up to 20% of U.S. biodiesel base. He also emphasized that this is what the USDA does – “we solve all your problems, turn it over to you and you make all the money.”

Brian Davison, Chief Scientist for Systems Biology at the Bioenergy Science Center Oak Ridge National Lab highlighted recent research on improving low recalcitrance feedstocks and results of their field trials, population studies, and more. While not resolved completely, it shows it can be manipulated and thus can improve feedstocks.

Quang Nguyen from the Idaho National Laboratory ended the day with a hand outstretched to the audience saying their new user facility can help with biomass processing and handling research for testing your feedstocks.

Other exciting and ‘first heard here’ news at ABLC’s first day was that Connecticut-based P2 Science, which uses chemistry technologies to make products for the flavor, fragrance, and cosmetics indusries, raised almost $10 million in Series B Financing from new investors BASF Venture Capital and Xeraya Capital. The money will be used to build and run its first commercial plant in Connecticut for those industries, with later expansion planned into the polymers, lubricants and surfactants markets.

Stay tuned for many more announcements and news buzz at ABLC’s second day at the Mayflower Hotel.

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