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Biofuels Feedstocks - Yield Matters

February 27, 2008
The following post was submitted by Richard Hamilton, president and CEO of Ceres, Inc.

Technology is playing a critical role in maximizing the inherent advantages of dedicated energy crops. Through advanced plant breeding, public and private researchers are increasing yields both in terms of tons per acre (field yields) and in terms of gallons per ton (through traits that improve conversion). Higher yields not only have a significant impact on reducing production costs of cellulosic biofuels, but there are obvious benefits to land use as well. We will need fewer acres to produce the same amount of biofuels. See the impact of yield with this land-area calculator.

The advantages of dedicated energy crops are well-established. This January, it even became clear that researchers may have been too conservative in their predictions. A large, on-farm study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that switchgrass produces 540% more energy than is used to grow, harvest and process it into ethanol (these calculations were based on actual costs and production data). Likewise greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 94% lower than from gasoline.

The most exciting part of this analysis is that this was a baseline study using seed varieties and agronomic practices developed for use in pastures rather than biofuel production.

Today, genomics-based technologies are being used by companies like Ceres to track desirable traits at the DNA level through generations in plant breeding programs, known as marker-assisted breeding. The application of this technology will cut years off development timelines. Many energy crops have undergone little improvement, and large gains are already being made. The first high-yielding dedicated energy crops are scheduled for release next year. Further down the road, biotech traits will offer continued yield and conversion advantages. Predictions of net energy ratios of 10X don’t see so far off anymore.