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Energy Grasses Take Center Stage at Ceres Field Day

Ceres CEO Richard Hamilton and Dr. Richard Flavell, chief scientific officer, in a Ceres greenhouse.
Ceres CEO Richard Hamilton (right) and Dr. Richard Flavell, chief scientific officer, evaluate improved switchgrass plants in a Ceres greenhouse.

Energy industry executives joined investors and policymakers near Houston, Texas to take a firsthand look at energy grasses and research developments that are expected to push bioenergy to the forefront of renewable power and transportation fuels.

The bioenergy field day, hosted by Ceres, Inc., provides a unique opportunity for industry leaders who may not be familiar with agricultural production to walk among towering energy grasses, share updates, and see how improvements to biomass production are made through plant breeding and modern biology. This year’s event included side-by-side crop comparisons, field demonstrations, and presentations from Drax Power, Dupont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol, General Motors, NRG Energy, and The Nature Conservancy.

“We cannot de-carbonize the world’s energy supply without biomass,” Ceres president Richard Hamilton told more than 100 attendees from the U.S., Europe, and South America. “The central question we face, then, is how to go about producing biopower and biofuels in the most scalable, efficient, and sustainable way.”

Biomass is expected to be one of the largest sources for renewable electricity in the U.S. and Europe, according to projections by the U.S. Energy Information Agency and European Commission. Moreover, a 2009 Sandia National Labs study, using conservative yield and conversion assumptions, concluded that advanced biofuels made from plant fibers could produce 75 billion gallons of biofuel per year in the U.S.

During the morning event at the company’s 200-acre research center, Ceres highlighted the performance of low-carbon energy grasses as well as research that is expected to increase yields, make greater use of marginal lands, and lower input requirements. One Ceres trait, for instance, could cut oil consumption in the U.S. by more than a billion barrels over a decade, and substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making grasses even more efficient at utilizing nitrogen fertilizers.

If managed in new ways, perennials like switchgrass and miscanthus could even sequester more carbon than is emitted in the lifecycle of processing and burning them. “We could actually start talking about removing C02 from the atmosphere rather than simply decreasing overall emissions — farming carbon at the same time as we produce energy,” noted Hamilton.

Ceres vice president of plant breeding and genomics, Jeff Gwyn, who led field tours at the event, said that low-input grasses will make the greatest sense in many locations, since they will outperform other sources of biomass on a per-acre/per-year basis, and can be readily improved. He expects yields of energy grasses to follow the trajectory of row crops. “There are dozens of paths to increase yield and lower inputs, and we are pursuing them and stacking them together in different ways,” said Gwyn.

Amid a breeding nursery, he described the process of improving new plants, “Whereas a farmer may grow one seed variety over a 1,000 acres, we may grow 1,000 varieties over one or two acres. And, when it comes to finding that one winner among thousands, thanks to genomics and other breeding technologies developed by Ceres, it’s not a guessing game, but a straight-forward scientific process,” Gwyn said.

Ceres, Inc. is a leading developer of energy crops that can be planted as raw materials for advanced biofuels, biopower, and bio-based products. Its development efforts include switchgrass, high-biomass sorghum, sweet sorghum, and miscanthus. The plant breeding and biotechnology company markets its switchgrass and sorghum seeds under its Blade Energy Crops brand. Ceres holds one of the world’s largest proprietary collections of fully sequenced plant genes.

Read Biofuels and Bioenergy: Processes and Technologies from Amazon.

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