Energy crop company Ceres, Inc. announced today that it will sow thousands of acres of switchgrass, high-biomass sorghum and other energy crops over the next three years near St. Joseph, Missouri to support a next-generation biorefinery being engineered by ICM, Inc., a leading biofuel process technology provider. The demonstration-scale project, which includes participation from academic institutions, government and other technology providers, will produce fuel, known as cellulosic biofuel, from biomass rather than corn. Last week, Department of Energy officials announced up to $30 million in supplemental funding for the planned facility.
Ceres' primary role will be to supply seed of specially developed energy crop cultivars to nearby farmers, who will grow the plants and harvest the biomass. The company will also provide agronomic recommendations to the overall venture, which will compare numerous raw materials, including Ceres' dedicated energy crops, for their conversion efficiency and fuel yields, as well as their economic viability.
"We are pleased that ICM chose Ceres as a seed provider for the dedicated energy crops they needed," said Ceres chief executive Richard Hamilton. "They have been a clear leader in optimizing the starch-to-ethanol process, and we believe they are well prepared to make next-generation biofuels competitive with starch ethanol and petroleum."
"This project will be an important proving ground for new technologies, both in the field and at the biorefinery," said Hamilton, who noted that higher crop yields and optimized biomass composition can have a dramatic impact on reducing cellulosic biofuel production costs. "Ceres will help determine the best mix of crops, the right traits and cultivars, as well as the agronomic practices that maximize biomass yields and conversion efficiency of the biomass to biofuel," he said.
According to Hamilton, the learnings from this small-scale project will have far-reaching impact, allowing participating companies to optimize the biofuel production and delivery chain from seed to pump. He expects energy crop acreage across the U.S. to increase rapidly as best practices are duplicated in other areas.
"Once we get crops in the field and biomass moving through a refinery, the industry will start bringing down costs, and ramping up production," said Hamilton, noting that the Energy Act recently signed by the President calls for a minimum of 16 billion gallons per year from biomass. "Getting there will require the application of new technologies, such as biotechnology, both in the field and at the biorefinery."
These improvements are also expected to result in higher net energy benefits, as well as reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, switchgrass-to-ethanol produces about five times more energy than needed to grow, harvest and process it, and results in 90% less greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum.