Save the rainforests, use degraded land AND produce fuel and food? Soleá looks at how Macaúba could solve many problems

June 28, 2020 |

What can you do with crappy land? Land that deals with long periods of drought, or that is so degraded not much can grow on it, or that has been deforested and needs to bring back life and wildlife into it. How can Macaúba help?

Macaúba is known for its high productivity and adaptability to the most adverse climate conditions and even better, the fruit’s shell, pulp, endocarp, and almond can be converted into a range of food products, fuels and hydrocarbons, and other biomaterials including chemicals and additives.

In today’s Digest, why is Macaúba so unique, what are its benefits over some other feedstocks, what is Brazil-based Soleá doing to advance Macaúba for sustainable aviation fuel with Boeing and RSB, Soleá’s latest updates on harvesting, going commercial-scale, and more.

What is Macaúba?

First, the basics as you don’t hear about macaúba as often as some other feedstocks like corn or UCO in the biobased world. Macaúba is a Brazilian Palm Tree, naturally occurring in several regions from North to South of Brazil. It stands out for its high productivity and adaptability to the most adverse climate conditions.

The fruit of the macaúba palm is composed of a shell, pulp, endocarp, and almond – which can be converted into a range of food products, fuels and hydrocarbons, and other biomaterials including chemicals and additives.

Soleá “fell in love with the Brazilian Spirit of Macaúba, its versatility and its innumerous possibilities. We operate in partnership with Acrotech Co. to domesticate and develop high value varieties, working from seed germination to fruit processing,” according to their website.

Felipe Morbi, CEO of Soleá, told The Digest in an exclusive interview, “Macaúba is a ‘new kid on the block’. We undertook the challenge of domesticating a native species and transforming it into a large-scale crop.”

What makes macaúba better than some other feedstocks?

First, if you look at slide 11 in The Digest’s 2020 Multi-Slide Guide to Soleá Oils and Bioproducts, you’ll notice something quite astonishing – the much higher productivity rate per ton/hectare for macaúba compared to other feedstocks like soy, rapeseed, and palm oil. But that’s not all. According to Morbi, he cites three pillars that make macaúba unique:

  1. Sustainability: “This is our key aspect! It can be cultivated in degraded lands (usually former pastures), it helps to reduce water surface runoff and favors the recharge of hydrographic basins. On top of this, this crop can fix a significant amount of CO2eq during its lifecycle (30 years). Furthermore, we have had positive outcome in our pilot areas where we have integrated agricultural and livestock crops.”
  2. High productivity and “quality of its derivate products both in relation to vegetable oil yield (9 ton/ha) and profile where we have a lauric kernel oil and an oleic pulp oil (not palmitic). Coupled with this our biomass yield reaches (30 ton/ha) and we are also a source of protein, dietary fibers, lignin and cellulose. Macaúba’s high yield demands 50% less area than Palm and 6% of the soybean area needed to produce the same amount of oil. This impacts on lower land investment and lower operating cost with more efficient management and harvesting logistics.”
  3. Robustness: “It is highly adaptable to different biomes, climates, reliefs and soil types, enabling its cultivation in several regions of the world. This allow working in high-scale and under a decentralized production. Macaúba demands half of palm’s rainfall index. This allows its cultivation in savannah like areas and not under rain forests which are very fragile biomes.”

“The ‘secret’ behind Macaúba is in its size, smaller than palm, which allows planting close to three times more plants in the same area,” according to Morbi. “In addition, we have run a successful classic genetics improvement program (No GMO) in partnership with a sister-company Acrotech. We are starting a cloning program that coupled with modern agricultural management techniques will lead us to this unique productivity.”

“We had a blanc page to fill and we developed this project looking into the future,” said Morbi. “The word ‘waste’ has been deleted. We have run an in-depth benchmarking analysis of several novelty oil initiatives as well as current crops strengths and weaknesses. Among our learnings, circular economy has become a key goal since early days. This challenge was carried out by top-notch specialists that have developed high value applications that includes all our products: 2 oils, 2 flours, 2 shells and even dry leaves and empty bunches. We developed a technical hub around Macaúba involving some of the main Universities and ICTs in the country. We are developing not a new crop but a new production chain under a future-looking basis.”

Save the rainforests, grow Macaúba?

It’s great that Macaúba can grow on degraded lands, is a rustic species and adapts very well to different biomes, but can it really save the rain forests?

Morbi pointed out that Macaúba occurs naturally from Argentina to Mexico under different names but always showing huge resiliency to adverse climatic conditions, i.e., long periods of drought. “Brazil has more than 50 million hectares of degraded areas and does not make any sense, either by the environmental aspect or by economics to clear new areas for agriculture,” Morbi told The Digest. “We must use already deforested land! In addition to zero deforestation, we are recovering degraded areas through the re-introduction of Macaúba. When we see wild animals return, water streams come back, we know that our day-one sustainability goal exercised every day has paid-off. We focus on a profitable business that generates social impact and environmental recovery in a genuine way. This is our way to do things.”

Current Macaúba harvest and projects

“Our first harvest will take place late this year and our expectations are quite high given recent technical upgrades in crop management as well as a pilot mechanical harvesting system just inplaced,” Morbi told The Digest. “On the other hand, we are pioneering several development projects on Macaúba derivate products on biomaterials, green chemicals, food specialties and 2G drop-in fuels. Results have been quite positive, and several proof-of-concepts were achieved showing that Macaúba can lead to high value products.”

“Currently, the planted area is small, and the availability of products is incipient. This is due to the dormancy of Macaúba seeds, which prevented from producing seedlings thus no experimental planting nor large-scale cultivation were possible.  Dormancy technology has only been developed and patented in 2007 when the domestication process started.  It is important to mention that Soleá has been a pioneer throughout this process and several further developments have been carried out.

Morbi also added that besides “demonstrating” their initial ideas, in recent months, they found out so many new opportunities. “Now it is time to start the commercialization phase as well as engage with future business partners,” said Morbi.

In March, The Digest reported that CNH Industrial was investigating the viability of macaúba biodiesel for agricultural machinery. During the tests, mixtures of 10% and 20% of macaúba biodiesel were used. The results showed performance and consumption comparable to Brazilian commercial diesel, with a reduction trend in terms of carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter (PM) emissions. This is further evidence of FPT Industrial’s commitment to exploring innovative sustainable fuels which could yield positive benefits.

As reported in The Digest in June 2019, the sustainable aviation fuel project in Brazil with “Three Amigos” Boeing, RSB, WWF that starts with identifying small communities of farmers in Brazil with the most promising potential to provide biomass for SAF production. Groups of small farmers that produce sugarcane and macaúba oil in southeast Brazil have already been certified by RSB in recent years, with Boeing’s financial support.

What the future holds for Soleá

Morbi told The Digest, “Our benchmarking studies showed that successful projects had solid basis, i.e., the key aspects have been worked out so there can be a solid growth. We are close to concluding our “demonstration” phase where we show the strength of our crop management which includes a large germoplasm bank, nursery, a 700 ha farm (former degraded pasture land) and a genetic improvement program. Given our demonstration phase is concluded, we are looking forward building partnerships with key players and investors to support our growth plans.”

“In the next 12 months Soleá will start making its products as well as our key R&D projects will be concluded,” said Morbi. “After this we will enter into a scale-up phase. In the next five years we plan to reach 50 thousand hectares and setting up two processing plants. In the next twenty years we expect that Macaúba has consolidated its role as an alternative crop to current options thus expanding its cultivated area to millions of hectares and offering to society global sustainable and economically viable products supporting decarbonization efforts.”

Soleá joins RSB on Macaúba guide for improved sustainability

This month, Soleá joined RSB as a member to promote the sustainable cultivation of Macaúba. Producing a high value product from a highly productive feedstock on degraded land offers a range of potential sustainability benefits and this new partnership between RSB and Soleá will see the development of recommendations and guidelines to advance the cultivation of Macaúba in line with the rigorous sustainability requirements of the RSB Standard. RSB will work closely with Soleá to unlock their data and knowledge to create a comprehensive handbook for the industry in Brazil.

Considering the potential of Macauba as a versatile feedstock for the bioeconomy, the aiming of this guide is to support the practice of this culture in a commercial scale as well as by smallholders, ensuring the commitment with sustainability aspects and positive impacts in the social, economic and environmental levels.

Promoting the sustainable cultivation of Macaúba in Brazil towards commercial viability is a key goal of the Brazilian arm of RSB’s Fuelling the Sustainable Bioeconomy project, powered by Boeing’s Global Engagement Portfolio.

RSB’s Executive Director Rolf Hogan, said, “Macaúba has huge potential in Brazil – and elsewhere – given its high productivity and ability to thrive on degraded land, meaning it can be produced without contributing to deforestation. Of course, ensuring that all potential sustainability risks are addressed requires a credible standard and we’re extremely pleased to be able to work closely with new RSB member, Soleá, to develop a handbook for cultivation – which we believe will encourage the uptake of Macaúba, its sustainable cultivation and global confidence in its environmental and social benefits when certified.”

Felipe Morbi of Soleá, added, “We are committed to developing a truly sustainable solution for the food, materials and energy that our world needs. Working to ensure that Macaúba is at the forefront of a transition to real sustainability means partnering with organisations like RSB is absolutely vital to understand and manage risks – and unlock opportunity. We look forward to leading the drive to develop Macaúba as a truly sustainable crop for the bioeconomy.”

The future of Macaúba

When asked where he sees the future of Macaúba, Morbi told The Digest, “We have Strong expectations! We are confident that Macaúba will play an important role as a sustainable global feedstock since we are closely aligned to market demand. We are a sustainable crop belonging to Latin America biodiversity that can be grown in savannah-like areas (even in degraded lands). Given our high productivity and oil profile (Oleic and Lauric) we can answer to future vegetable oil demands in volume and cost.”

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