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Published on August 1st, 2008 | by Clayton

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Dedicated Energy Crops Could Replace 30% of Gasoline: Ceres, Inc. Wants to Make it Happen

Ceres Switchgrass

[social_buttons] Ceres, Inc. supports the prediction that we could grow more than 30% of US transportation fuel with dedicated energy crops. This is no pipe dream: planting starts next spring.

Ceres, Inc., the self-described “energy crop company,” is engineering plants that could play a big role in the future of sustainable biofuels. In stark contrast to food crops, what Ceres is in the business of creating are “dedicated energy crops”—like switchgrass, sorghum, and miscanthus—that are ideally suited for fuel production.

While the global “food vs. fuel” debate rages on, a few companies like Ceres are quietly moving forward with next generation technology that challenges many of the current assumptions about growing fuel. In their view, it’s time to move the conversation on from corn-based controversy to second-generation, non-food based sources of ethanol.

What Ceres is Doing

switchgrassCeres is a biotechnology company using genetic engineering and standard plant breeding techniques to create the most efficient and productive biofuel feedstocks possible. Basically, they’re using techniques developed and applied in the Human Genome Project to sequence and manipulate plant DNA.

According to material provided by Ceres (see video of the presentation at GMNext.com), the company is one of the world’s leading plant genomics firms with a proprietary collection of more than 70,000 genes from numerous plant species. You may have heard the company’s name before, since Monsanto has been paying for Ceres’ technology for years.

But Ceres is now looking to capitalize on the potential of biofuel crops by producing species that grow bigger, faster, and more cheaply. They’re trying to maximize the number one criteria for any fuel crop—how much plant it produces on an acre of land—while minimizing the need for fertilizer and other inputs, and optimizing the ease in which the crop can actually be converted into ethanol.

Unlike growing an ear of corn, Ceres doesn’t care about increasing the number or size of starch-containing kernels. They’re interested in biomass: the leaves and stalks of the plant that contain everything else. (For more information, see previous post describing how cellulosic ethanol is produced from biomass.)

The Business Plan

If you thought cellulosic ethanol was just another pipe dream, note this: Ceres will be selling switchgrass seeds to farmers this year for the spring 2009 planting season. Besides a number of varieties of switchgrass, they’ll also be selling sorghum and miscanthus, all under the brand name Blade.

To plant an acre of switchgrass, a farmer will need about 5 lbs of seed for a total cost of about $100 per acre. But a perennial crop like switchgrass is only planted once every 5-10 years, since it grows back from the same root system over and over.

So how will Ceres make money?

Taking a brief look at their business materials, it’s clear that Ceres already has a diverse portfolio of available plant seeds for sale, combined with a virtually untapped and potentially explosive market for next-generation biofuels (not to mention the proprietary genetic information they already own).

The better question then, is not “will Ceres make money,” but, “will Ceres become the Monsanto of biofuel crops?”

There’s no question that Ceres faces large obstacles in getting their seeds to market. The big catch for farmers planting a perennial energy crop is that it takes two years to establish a productive stand. Unlike annual corn crops, which put down a relatively shallow root system, switchgrass grows down into the ground before it establishes the biomass needed for ethanol production. This is a very big deal for farmers, most of whom are technically bankrupt at the end of each growing season and can’t afford to wait two or three years to see a return on their investment.

There’s also no prior knowledge for growing a crop like switchgrass, which is one step removed from the wild, so Ceres will also have to be instrumental in helping farms make the transition.

Fortunately, there’s a little help in the form of the 2008 Farm Bill. The Farm Bill instituted the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), which helps farmers transition to dedicated energy crops by covering large percentages of the transition cost. BCAP will also pay growers yearly until the biorefinery they supply can pay them, and puts in place a capped dollar matching program for harvest and transportation costs. Getting over the initial investment hump is also a big deal for ethanol production facilities too, and the BCAP allocates funds for up to 30% of the cost of developing demonstration-scale ethanol plants.

What is the potential of one of these energy crops, switchgrass?

The U.S. uses 390 million gallons of gasoline for motor vehicle transport per day. That’s a bit over 142 billion gallons of gasoline each year. Using a back of the envelop calculation, if we took just 5% of rangeland in the U.S. (30 million acres), and converted it to switchgrass production, assuming we could produce 100 gallons of fuel from every dry ton, that’s 30 billion gallons of fuel, or 21% of U.S. gasoline consumption.

And that’s assuming no advancement in the productivity of switchgrass, which is extremely unlikely (see the USDA switchgrass study for more).

Switchgrass is particularly well-suited for use as a fuel crop, since it’s:

  • A native plant and high yielding.
  • A perennial with strong net energy balance (more energy comes out than you put in).
  • Currently produces up to 10 tons per acre (dry).
  • Requires low inputs. Nitrogen (N) as low as 50 lbs per acre.
  • Often, no phosphorous (P) or potassium (K) is required.
  • Weeds aren’t a problem after stand establishment.
  • During senescence, the plant puts nutrients back into the soil and roots sequester carbon.
  • Disease or pest problems are not a major concern because it’s well adapted to US.

While it took centuries to turn corn into a staple of the American diet, Ceres hopes to condense the normal process of plant selection into just a few years, and facilitate the introduction of these plants into the marketplace.

The at-the-pump cost of cellulosic ethanol produced from dedicated energy crops will largely depend on the technology used by production facilities, and that’s where companies like Mascoma, Coskata, and BlueFire Ethanol come in. These three companies tend to quote about $1-1.50 per gallon for their final product.

This information comes from last week’s GM backgrounder on cellulosic ethanol feedstocks, which was a detailed look at some of the frontrunners in this arena. For more information, see the following posts.

Or, want to duke this out in the discussion forums?

“Do Biofuels Suck?”

http://discuss.greenoptions.com/viewtopic.php?f=39&t=622

More Posts on Switchgrass and Cellulosic Ethanol:

Photo Credit: Ceres, Inc.




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About the Author

In a past life, Clayton was a professional blogger and editor of Gas 2.0, Important Media’s blog covering the future of sustainable transportation. He was also the Managing Editor for GO Media, the predecessor to Important Media.



  • http://americangeniusseeking.blogspot.com shea

    sounds good, but probably will create more problems than it solves just like everything else

  • http://americangeniusseeking.blogspot.com shea

    sounds good, but probably will create more problems than it solves just like everything else

  • http://americangeniusseeking.blogspot.com shea

    sounds good, but probably will create more problems than it solves just like everything else

  • Aaron Gutman

    The plant which can achieve this is not new and does not require genetic engineering. The commercial use of industrial HEMP is exactly the reason marijuana was originally made illegal. We have spent almost an entire century under the thumb of the petrochemical industry when a clean alternative was always available. A destroyed environment and millions of Americans jailed for victimless crimes is the legacy they have left. Shame on all who have perpetuated this travesty.

    • http://www.eseusainc.cm David Robbins

      Dedicated energy crops, like Switchgrass are promising for biofuel production. Our company focuses on Miscanthus Giganteus, because it is 2.5x the yield of Switchgrass and noninvasive. Miscanthus is a 20 year perrenial versus 7-10 with Switchgrass. With our technology, other crops, like sorghum, corn stover, hemp, etc. can be utilized and converted to allow for farming in the right environment and truck or rail shipped at high density. Check out our website at:www.eseusainc.com for more information.

  • Aaron Gutman

    The plant which can achieve this is not new and does not require genetic engineering. The commercial use of industrial HEMP is exactly the reason marijuana was originally made illegal. We have spent almost an entire century under the thumb of the petrochemical industry when a clean alternative was always available. A destroyed environment and millions of Americans jailed for victimless crimes is the legacy they have left. Shame on all who have perpetuated this travesty.

  • kyle

    hemp is an amazing plant, its amazing we dont use it. grows so fast and has many many many uses. oil for us to use, fibers for rope and seeds for animal feed. people think the government knows whats best for them, they never question their world, descartes is rolling in his grave and has been since his death….

  • kyle

    hemp is an amazing plant, its amazing we dont use it. grows so fast and has many many many uses. oil for us to use, fibers for rope and seeds for animal feed. people think the government knows whats best for them, they never question their world, descartes is rolling in his grave and has been since his death….

  • kyle

    hemp is an amazing plant, its amazing we dont use it. grows so fast and has many many many uses. oil for us to use, fibers for rope and seeds for animal feed. people think the government knows whats best for them, they never question their world, descartes is rolling in his grave and has been since his death….

  • Evil One

    Or, you could simply use Sapphire’s technology to produce REAL gasoline from algae, instead of alcohol out of grass.

  • Evil One

    Or, you could simply use Sapphire’s technology to produce REAL gasoline from algae, instead of alcohol out of grass.

  • Evil One

    Or, you could simply use Sapphire’s technology to produce REAL gasoline from algae, instead of alcohol out of grass.

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    Evil One, so far, all the algae-to-biofuels facilities I’m aware of still can’t produce economically viable fuel.

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    Evil One, so far, all the algae-to-biofuels facilities I’m aware of still can’t produce economically viable fuel.

  • Justin

    This is an awful idea. Crops are not the answer to fuel shortages. Just look at the ethanol market. Pretty much just as expensive, less efficient, still causes pollutants, meanwhile with global warming screwing up rainfall we get droughts here and floods there. Dedicating more land for the production of plants that have not purpose other then fuel is the result of someone not thinking clearly. Soon we will have water shortages, more government oversight, and food shortages. We need to focus on wind, solar, and producing Hydrogen by NOT using fossil fuels. The longer we pussy foot our way though crops the worse of we will be. We don’t need more polluting fuels we need clean ones and yesterday. Screwing around with growing switch grass is just encouraging motor companies to drag there feet in coming up with REAL solutions.

  • Justin

    This is an awful idea. Crops are not the answer to fuel shortages. Just look at the ethanol market. Pretty much just as expensive, less efficient, still causes pollutants, meanwhile with global warming screwing up rainfall we get droughts here and floods there. Dedicating more land for the production of plants that have not purpose other then fuel is the result of someone not thinking clearly. Soon we will have water shortages, more government oversight, and food shortages. We need to focus on wind, solar, and producing Hydrogen by NOT using fossil fuels. The longer we pussy foot our way though crops the worse of we will be. We don’t need more polluting fuels we need clean ones and yesterday. Screwing around with growing switch grass is just encouraging motor companies to drag there feet in coming up with REAL solutions.

  • Baldkat82

    Justin has it right. We can’t use plants as a fuel source. They’re to unstable and use up to much land. If a drought or flood happens and destroys most of the crop, we’re so effed. The price will skyrocket for the fuel and it will stay that way. Also, dedicating all this land for a non-food crop takes away land from food crops. Farmers are less inclined to produce the food crops reducing supply and therefore driving up the costs of food.

    It’s a double edged sword with no good outcome.

  • Baldkat82

    Justin has it right. We can’t use plants as a fuel source. They’re to unstable and use up to much land. If a drought or flood happens and destroys most of the crop, we’re so effed. The price will skyrocket for the fuel and it will stay that way. Also, dedicating all this land for a non-food crop takes away land from food crops. Farmers are less inclined to produce the food crops reducing supply and therefore driving up the costs of food.

    It’s a double edged sword with no good outcome.

  • Baldkat82

    Justin has it right. We can’t use plants as a fuel source. They’re to unstable and use up to much land. If a drought or flood happens and destroys most of the crop, we’re so effed. The price will skyrocket for the fuel and it will stay that way. Also, dedicating all this land for a non-food crop takes away land from food crops. Farmers are less inclined to produce the food crops reducing supply and therefore driving up the costs of food.

    It’s a double edged sword with no good outcome.

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    @Justin:

    Dedicated energy crops are just 1/3 of the solution here, and I don’t think anyone has claimed they are the “answer.” But it is important to keep all the options on the table here and evaluate them individually.

    Let me address your specific claims:

    1. “Just as expensive” – depends on what you’re accounting for. In terms of $$ they should be cost competitive. In terms of carbon emissions they will squarely beat ethanol and gasoline.

    2. “less efficient” – Cellulosic ethanol crops like switchgrass have already proven to be more efficient, in the USDA’s study returning 540% more energy then spent on them.

    3. “still cause pollutants” – what doesn’t? You’ve got to take the best option you can. In the same USDA study, they found a 94% reduction in GHG emissions from cellulosic ethanol produced from switchgrass (when compared to gasoline).

    4. Switchgrass is a perennial native to the US. It takes far fewer inputs (in terms of water and fertilizer) than something like corn to grow.

    My question for you is, how are wind/solar/hydrogen going to directly replace transportation fuel within the next 10 years?

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    @Justin:

    Dedicated energy crops are just 1/3 of the solution here, and I don’t think anyone has claimed they are the “answer.” But it is important to keep all the options on the table here and evaluate them individually.

    Let me address your specific claims:

    1. “Just as expensive” – depends on what you’re accounting for. In terms of $$ they should be cost competitive. In terms of carbon emissions they will squarely beat ethanol and gasoline.

    2. “less efficient” – Cellulosic ethanol crops like switchgrass have already proven to be more efficient, in the USDA’s study returning 540% more energy then spent on them.

    3. “still cause pollutants” – what doesn’t? You’ve got to take the best option you can. In the same USDA study, they found a 94% reduction in GHG emissions from cellulosic ethanol produced from switchgrass (when compared to gasoline).

    4. Switchgrass is a perennial native to the US. It takes far fewer inputs (in terms of water and fertilizer) than something like corn to grow.

    My question for you is, how are wind/solar/hydrogen going to directly replace transportation fuel within the next 10 years?

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    @Baldkat82:

    I keep hearing this “market” argument. So if farmers decide to start producing switchgrass instead of corn (which is highly unlikely), and that somehow drives up the price of food (which is even more unlikely), then won’t the “market” respond by more farmers growing food again?

    “They’re to unstable and use up to much land. If a drought or flood happens and destroys most of the crop, we’re so effed.”

    Switchgrass is about as unstable as any other self-sufficient prairie grass. If your second sentence is true, shouldn’t we be effed already, since we do in fact grow all of our food?

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    @Baldkat82:

    I keep hearing this “market” argument. So if farmers decide to start producing switchgrass instead of corn (which is highly unlikely), and that somehow drives up the price of food (which is even more unlikely), then won’t the “market” respond by more farmers growing food again?

    “They’re to unstable and use up to much land. If a drought or flood happens and destroys most of the crop, we’re so effed.”

    Switchgrass is about as unstable as any other self-sufficient prairie grass. If your second sentence is true, shouldn’t we be effed already, since we do in fact grow all of our food?

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    @Baldkat82:

    I keep hearing this “market” argument. So if farmers decide to start producing switchgrass instead of corn (which is highly unlikely), and that somehow drives up the price of food (which is even more unlikely), then won’t the “market” respond by more farmers growing food again?

    “They’re to unstable and use up to much land. If a drought or flood happens and destroys most of the crop, we’re so effed.”

    Switchgrass is about as unstable as any other self-sufficient prairie grass. If your second sentence is true, shouldn’t we be effed already, since we do in fact grow all of our food?

  • Jeff

    Clayton,

    This is not just a U.S. problem. In Indonesia, a gold rush has broken out. Farms are abandoning food crops to make the move towards bio fuel. This hits home especially in developing nations who are essentially starving locals by changing “food crop farms” to this new cash crop.

    This is happening in the U.S. as well. We see not only the price of grains rise, but in turn the price of beef as overheads for these ranches go up. Have you bought milk lately?

    The real solution is not one solution at all. Moderation is key. Some cars will always run on gas, some will run on diesel, some hydrogen, and some electric. Moving towards one solution is a bad idea. The way you manage investment risk is by creating a diversified portfolio. The same principle applies in this case.

  • Jeff

    Clayton,

    This is not just a U.S. problem. In Indonesia, a gold rush has broken out. Farms are abandoning food crops to make the move towards bio fuel. This hits home especially in developing nations who are essentially starving locals by changing “food crop farms” to this new cash crop.

    This is happening in the U.S. as well. We see not only the price of grains rise, but in turn the price of beef as overheads for these ranches go up. Have you bought milk lately?

    The real solution is not one solution at all. Moderation is key. Some cars will always run on gas, some will run on diesel, some hydrogen, and some electric. Moving towards one solution is a bad idea. The way you manage investment risk is by creating a diversified portfolio. The same principle applies in this case.

  • Jeff

    Clayton,

    This is not just a U.S. problem. In Indonesia, a gold rush has broken out. Farms are abandoning food crops to make the move towards bio fuel. This hits home especially in developing nations who are essentially starving locals by changing “food crop farms” to this new cash crop.

    This is happening in the U.S. as well. We see not only the price of grains rise, but in turn the price of beef as overheads for these ranches go up. Have you bought milk lately?

    The real solution is not one solution at all. Moderation is key. Some cars will always run on gas, some will run on diesel, some hydrogen, and some electric. Moving towards one solution is a bad idea. The way you manage investment risk is by creating a diversified portfolio. The same principle applies in this case.

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    Jeff,

    I’m well aware of the global implications of these cash crops, but I think the biggest problem is currently the cutting down rainforest/draining peat bogs to plant oil palms. Which crops are you referring to?

    A couple points about grains in the US:

    1) 80 or 90% of corn and soybeans are fed to cattle.

    2) oil prices are primarily to blame for the increasing cost of food.

    3) when oil prices go up the cost of everything goes up, including milk.

    4) this has nothing to do with growing switchgrass.

    Your third paragraph is exactly what I’m talking about, that we need a comprehensive energy plan that attacks the issue from all different angles (but I don’t think cars will always run on gas or diesel – that era is on its way out).

    Out of the 142 billion gallons of gas we use every year, you get 1/3 of that from improvements in efficiency and conservation, 1/3 of that from biofuels, and 1/3 of that from new technology like plug-in hybrids. There’s your portfolio.

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    Jeff,

    I’m well aware of the global implications of these cash crops, but I think the biggest problem is currently the cutting down rainforest/draining peat bogs to plant oil palms. Which crops are you referring to?

    A couple points about grains in the US:

    1) 80 or 90% of corn and soybeans are fed to cattle.

    2) oil prices are primarily to blame for the increasing cost of food.

    3) when oil prices go up the cost of everything goes up, including milk.

    4) this has nothing to do with growing switchgrass.

    Your third paragraph is exactly what I’m talking about, that we need a comprehensive energy plan that attacks the issue from all different angles (but I don’t think cars will always run on gas or diesel – that era is on its way out).

    Out of the 142 billion gallons of gas we use every year, you get 1/3 of that from improvements in efficiency and conservation, 1/3 of that from biofuels, and 1/3 of that from new technology like plug-in hybrids. There’s your portfolio.

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    Jeff,

    I’m well aware of the global implications of these cash crops, but I think the biggest problem is currently the cutting down rainforest/draining peat bogs to plant oil palms. Which crops are you referring to?

    A couple points about grains in the US:

    1) 80 or 90% of corn and soybeans are fed to cattle.

    2) oil prices are primarily to blame for the increasing cost of food.

    3) when oil prices go up the cost of everything goes up, including milk.

    4) this has nothing to do with growing switchgrass.

    Your third paragraph is exactly what I’m talking about, that we need a comprehensive energy plan that attacks the issue from all different angles (but I don’t think cars will always run on gas or diesel – that era is on its way out).

    Out of the 142 billion gallons of gas we use every year, you get 1/3 of that from improvements in efficiency and conservation, 1/3 of that from biofuels, and 1/3 of that from new technology like plug-in hybrids. There’s your portfolio.

  • Mr. X

    Wouldn’t it be better if we all just walked where we needed to go?

  • Mr. X

    Wouldn’t it be better if we all just walked where we needed to go?

  • Mr. X

    Wouldn’t it be better if we all just walked where we needed to go?

  • Go Nuclear!

    Clayton,

    How much does Ceres pay you to write such crap! Must be significant since you obviously know all their talking points. This company Ceres and its aging pretty boy CEO is all about perceptions. They are all talk and hopes that if they keep repeating the same message maybe someone will fall for it and buy this poorly mangaged money sink of a company to make there shareholders rich or at least get some of their money back. So if you are ever in the Thousand Oaks area, stop by and take a look at all the miserable employees behind the cardboard fasade. What a joke.

  • Go Nuclear!

    Clayton,

    How much does Ceres pay you to write such crap! Must be significant since you obviously know all their talking points. This company Ceres and its aging pretty boy CEO is all about perceptions. They are all talk and hopes that if they keep repeating the same message maybe someone will fall for it and buy this poorly mangaged money sink of a company to make there shareholders rich or at least get some of their money back. So if you are ever in the Thousand Oaks area, stop by and take a look at all the miserable employees behind the cardboard fasade. What a joke.

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    Go Nuclear:

    For better or worse I’m not really getting paid for this. It just so happens that Ceres’ talking points actually make sense. I’m pretty sure they don’t want to be bought–they want to sell product, and they’ve already been doing plant genomics for 10 years, so I don’t think you can fairly claim they’re a disaster. I was in Thousand Oaks and toured their lab, that’s why I wrote this article. Having spent some time in labs before, I can say that it was legit.

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    Go Nuclear:

    For better or worse I’m not really getting paid for this. It just so happens that Ceres’ talking points actually make sense. I’m pretty sure they don’t want to be bought–they want to sell product, and they’ve already been doing plant genomics for 10 years, so I don’t think you can fairly claim they’re a disaster. I was in Thousand Oaks and toured their lab, that’s why I wrote this article. Having spent some time in labs before, I can say that it was legit.

  • http://gas2.org Clayton B. Cornell

    Go Nuclear:

    For better or worse I’m not really getting paid for this. It just so happens that Ceres’ talking points actually make sense. I’m pretty sure they don’t want to be bought–they want to sell product, and they’ve already been doing plant genomics for 10 years, so I don’t think you can fairly claim they’re a disaster. I was in Thousand Oaks and toured their lab, that’s why I wrote this article. Having spent some time in labs before, I can say that it was legit.

  • kulinarya

    hi clayton,

    you said in an earlier post that you don’t know of any algae-to-biodiesel plants that are economically viable. what about the petrosun plant you wrote about in march 08 though? is that just a demo plant or something?

    thanks

  • kulinarya

    hi clayton,

    you said in an earlier post that you don’t know of any algae-to-biodiesel plants that are economically viable. what about the petrosun plant you wrote about in march 08 though? is that just a demo plant or something?

    thanks

  • R. Berke

    What about the pencil plant or Milk Bush that is said to produce a product that can be refined into a close kin of gasoine. I hear that it is easily grown in rain forests, arid and marginal lands. I heard that the economics are very favorable and production doesn’t impact on food. There are now a number of research and development projects ongoing around the world. (scientific name Euphorbia tirucalli).

  • R. Berke

    What about the pencil plant or Milk Bush that is said to produce a product that can be refined into a close kin of gasoine. I hear that it is easily grown in rain forests, arid and marginal lands. I heard that the economics are very favorable and production doesn’t impact on food. There are now a number of research and development projects ongoing around the world. (scientific name Euphorbia tirucalli).

  • R. Berke

    What about the pencil plant or Milk Bush that is said to produce a product that can be refined into a close kin of gasoine. I hear that it is easily grown in rain forests, arid and marginal lands. I heard that the economics are very favorable and production doesn’t impact on food. There are now a number of research and development projects ongoing around the world. (scientific name Euphorbia tirucalli).

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