The Wall Street Journal picked up the Ceres press release last week about the company’s field results with hybrid switchgrass blowing most any number about the land area needed for cellulosic based biofuel production out the window.  No big surprise.  Hybridization has had at least a six fold impact on corn, perhaps a 3 to 4 fold impact on soya and has changed the face of humanity and its future with rice developments.  Its far from finished as agronomists confidently expect to double today’s numbers again in just two more decades.

A nationwide network of field trials showed Ceres’ switchgrass produced an average of 10 tons per acre and up to 19 tons per acre at the best test site. While Ceres’ own scientists collected some of the data, the majority of the data was from blind-seed studies by university-based agronomists. In other words, even though Ceres paid for the work, the university scientists didn’t know which were Ceres seeds.  According to Ceres, the switchgrass data were collected from small-plot, replicated trials at locations across the mid and southern latitudes of the United States on both dry and irrigated land in 2008. Like other crops, biomass yields can vary among specific locations and year-to-year.

Ceres Switchgrass Seed Chart.  Click image for more info.

Ceres Switchgrass Seed Chart. Click image for more info.

That’s a huge jump from the commonly used numbers for “studies” and other ruminations used to make press and political points.  The WSJ’s examples are a joint USDA-DOE study in 2005 assuming switchgrass produced from four to 10 tons per acre. In February, Sandia National Labs and General Motors R&D Center issued a joint assessment of the feasibility of biofuels. It assumed 48 million acres of energy crops produced 215 million tons, or 4.5 tons per acre.  The key word in those is assuming.  Wrong assumptions destroy or mislead and biofuels studies, press and media reporting is rife with such assumptions.

Proprietary varieties available under the company’s Blade Energy Crops brand were consistently the highest yielding varieties across multiple trial locations, with average yields reaching nearly 10 tons.  The yield results from its nation-wide network of field trials showed that average biomass yields among switchgrass seed varieties tested last season were as much as 50% more than the government’s projected yields for 2022.

Things are much different than the media and government agencies would lead people to believe.

Ceres, Inc. the California company that at one time in the past has partnered up with Monanto has become a biotechnology company utilizing cutting-edge genomics technologies to deliver sustainable solutions in energy production, agriculture, human health and nutrition.  Ceres utilizes its proprietary genomics technologies including full-length cDNA sequencing, targeted gene activation, high-throughput screening platforms, and plant breeding with trait-linked marker-assisted breeding, to identify and deploy genes and traits required for the production of elite plant varieties and hybrids. Ceres is developing energy crops such as switchgrass, miscanthus and poplar for cellulosic ethanol.

Cory Christensen, Ph.D., Ceres’ switchgrass product manager said, “This result demonstrates the genetic potential of switchgrass grown under favorable conditions through trait development, better genetics and improved crop management practices. We can continue to increase average yields for many years to come.”  He also noted that higher yields per acre have a significant impact on farm and conversion economics, and can dramatically reduce harvest and delivery costs per ton, collectively the single largest expense in providing raw materials to bioenergy facilities. Similar benefits would be seen in calculating the greenhouse gas savings of displacing petroleum with biofuels made from dedicated energy crops.

Ceres chief executive Richard Hamilton says that Ceres needs additional data before formally proposing new benchmarks, but said the “writing was on the wall.” Adding, “these results are not surprising when you look at the impact that utilizing modern biology has had on food crop yields, like corn, which has seen a five-fold increase since the first hybrids were introduced.”

One has to realize that the business of seeds is huge, worldwide and covers every imaginable plant from algae and other microorganisms to trees.  The mammoth players such as Monsanto are known to be in with an old contract with Ceres a common result with a web search. I’m just certain that the Pioneer International, Bayer and the others are avidly looking for the best and fastest plants to seize airborne carbon dioxide and grow the carbon into a processable commodity crop.

It matters because increasing yield per acre means more crops can be planted close to processing facilities.  Transporting grasses is costly because of the bulk (think grass clippings as an example), so most planned biorefineries are small because size is limited by the proximity to the crops. Improving the yield per acre means the industry can build bigger refineries and improve the economic situation.

That’s really just step one.  The plants themselves will change, but so will the farming methods, the crop material handling and all the steps from carbon dioxide in the air to a fuel for your use are going to improve.

But what isn’t known is what’s coming form all those major seed companies.  This news might be just a squall before a storm.  Its going to get very interesting and soon.


1 Comment so far

  1. Al Fin on June 2, 2009 8:38 AM

    Excellent discussion, Brian. You covered most of the crucial points that are usually overlooked by journalists, academicians, think tank gurus, and bureaucrats.

    All the people who live in the “theoretical world” of faulty models and bad assumptions are about to be blown away by the real world.

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