Yield10, Mitsubishi ink camelina-for-SAF MOU: Has camelina’s hour arrived?

February 5, 2023 |

News has arrived from Yield10 Bioscience and Mitsubishi that they are noodling over a partnership to supply, offtake and market Camelina as a low-carbon feedstock oil for biofuels; the two companies have now progressed to a memorandum of understanding of a deal which would ultimately be aimed at supporting Mitsubishi’s stated goal o mass produce sustainable aviation fuel to decarbonize commercial aviation.

The deal focus

Under the MOU, the companies plan to jointly undertake a feasibility study for the supply and offtake of Camelina oil from Camelina grain grown under contract using Yield10’s proprietary Camelina seed genetics to supply oil for the sustainable aviation fuel market. In addition, the companies also plan to jointly study the development and future offtake and marketing of PHA bioplastic produced in Camelina by Yield10 as an added value co-product with oil for biofuels. The MOU is non-binding and expires at the end of 2023.

The Bottom Line

Yield10 CEO Oliver Peoples I have known for a long time, but he never summed it up better than recently, when he assured me there isn’t another spare 90 million acres for SAF lying around. And, he didn’t need to mention that cows don’t make enough manure no matter no matter how much Dulcolax you give them. So, we’re, ahem. short on feedstock. Which has thoughtful scavengers headed for the forest, and there’s plenty there, but plenty of pushback for anyone trying to pull more than a few million tons of wood out of the forest — pushback from existing users, enviros, and local residents. 

So, if you’re looking for a bottom line that involves acreage and plant oils, it’s more acres or a second season, and we’re betting that second season wins. Yield10 obviously thinks so, and seems like Mitsubishi suspect that’s true.

I can say for sure, in the entire existence of the Digest, we’ve authored exactly one in-depth study and report on the US national bioeconomy, and it was on camelina for sustainable aviation fuels. Back in 2010-11 — we were believers then and now. 

Why? It’s that second season. Doesn’t have to be, strictly, a same-year extra season. If you can find a wheat field and speak with a grower — in my case, I just lean back and think of what my grandfather said and thought — you’ll find that planting wheat on wheat, same acreage in consecutive years, generally wrecks the soil and productivity. 

So, growers generally go wheat-fallow-wheat if they are being cautious about soil health. That’s the window, the extra crop. What if you could find a complement to wheat to plant in the fallow season, that would restore the soil health and give you a cash crop. 

Ah, welcome to the camelina story. Except that you can establish it as a good winter crop or a second season crop in the warn southern states as well, so many say. We’ll see about that, but if true, that makes it more of a no-brainer.

Since I mentioned asking growers, you’d be surprised the grower resistance, in the face of such promise, to a new crop like camelina. Some of that comes from the innate conservatism of farmers, who get maybe 40 shots on goal in their entire careers, every season is one shot, and losing a crop year to a bad idea is not exactly like opening and closing a tech company making apps, we’re talking real economic disaster here. So, the fundamental have to be almost beyond question.

But there’s another thing.  Some early companies overpromised and underdelivered. In some case, trials didn’t pan out, we heard. In other cases, growers planted, and the offtake was not there. I suspect there’s a lot more, “there, there” this time around, but you know how it goes, when trust is impaired. Conservatism becomes intransigence, and right quick.

This time around, our surmise is that there’s more “there, there” than before. Not only Yield10 with new traits, there’s Sustainable Oils that has been fighting the good camelina fight for more than a decade. The digestibility of the meal is good these days, there’s real reason for optimism.

So we ask some of the usual questions we ask. What about crop insurance for a dover crop. What about  planting and harvest tools that can handle small seeds, not every grower is used to offshoots of the mustard family.  What about weed control, what about pests, what about disease, what about hedging, a commodity futures contract, a pathway for RINs and LCFS credits. What about, what about, what about? We’re not mentioning these under the heading Mission Impossible, we are mentioning it under the headline, Someone Better Take On the Mission and Soon.

And, what about the big enchilada in the room? Who’s going to be the seed company that dominates camelina. One of the ABCDs? Someone else?  A good question for all of us, Yield10 might have some insight, but I’ll have more success getting gold out of Fort Know than cracking the Yield10 Not-yet-announced Partnerships Cone of Silence.

What’s the Hold Up on SAF, anyway, as it relates to feedstock?

It’s worth mentioning that not everyone is in a rush to save the planet, until they figure out the mechanics of a sustainable company edge. When there’s money in it, Lordy, how people get climate religion but fast. So, if you were to suspect that part of the hold-up is certain companies in the potential supply-chain trying to figure out how to establish themselves at the chokepoint, you wouldn’t be wrong. Sometimes there are bottlenecks because classical economics work in the long-term but not always day-to-day. However, some bottlenecks emerge because there’s money in being the owner of the bottleneck.

The Yield10 backstory

Yield10  is using its differentiated trait gene discovery platform to develop improved Camelina varieties for the production of proprietary seed products, and to discover high value genetic traits for the agriculture and food industries.  The goal? Establishing a high value seed products business based on developing superior varieties of Camelina to produce biofuel feedstock oils, PHA bioplastics and omega-3 (EPA, DHA) oils.

The Mitsubishi backstory

In April we reported that ENEOS Corporation and Mitsubishi agreed to a joint feasibility study aimed at commercializing Sustainable Aviation Fuel and other next-generation fuels in Japan.

In the end, it’s the feedstock. The study aims to build a supply chain for SAF, which requires cross-industrial collaboration, by leveraging both companies’ respective strengths. These include ENEOS’ manufacturing technologies and distribution networks, together with MC’s global expertise in raw material sourcing and marketing capabilities.

As background, the Japanese government has proposed a target to replace 10 percent of the jet fuels consumed by Japanese airlines with SAF by 2030. This makes establishing a SAF supply chain in Japan an urgent issue.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“Yield10 and Mitsubishi are aligned on the sustainability benefits that the Camelina crop could bring to the transportation fuels market,” said Oliver Peoples, Ph.D. President and Chief Executive Officer of Yield10 Bioscience.  “Over the next several months, we look forward to working with the Mitsubishi team to develop a framework for a collaboration to jointly develop and build our Camelina business in the U.S. and other important geographies.”

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