Advancements in biomass feedstocks and genetics
By Donna Fleury
Opportunities and demand for biomass feedstocks and purpose-grown crops continue to expand. New Energy Farms (NEF) Ltd. of Leamington, Ontario, is an integrated company that has extensive experience in commercial production of high-yielding energy grasses and other crops. NEF operates in the US, Canada and the EU with vertically integrated operations from plant breeding and crop production, through to commercial supply of feedstock suitable for thermal, liquid, anaerobic digestion and animal feed applications.
“What started as a search for biomass crops to heat our greenhouses on our farm has evolved to become NEF,” says Dean Tiessen, president. “We began looking for a long-term energy supply that was cost effective and environmentally friendly in 2008. Miscanthus was the first crop we focused on, which has expanded to include other biomass crops. We realized that the development of new cultivars was essential to increase yield, expand geographic production areas and facilitate new end uses.”
With one of the world’s largest energy grass germplasm collections and internal breeding programs, along with trial sites in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, NEF set out to improve the genetics of miscanthus and other crops. “One of our main priorities has been to help primary producers get vegetative and seeded varieties established more cost effectively and at scale,” explains Tiessen.
“Using miscanthus as an example, the cost of establishment is about $500 per acre on your own, or about $800 to $1,000 per acre if done by a service provider. This is a one-time cost, and an average well-managed stand should produce for at least 30 years or more. The returns on biomass in Ontario at the end of 2012 ranged from $140 to $180 per tonne FOB and on average miscanthus can yield 10 tonnes per acre per year,” adds Tiessen. “No other field crop can beat that profitability today.”
NEF works closely with partners to provide either genetics or the full opportunity as it relates to managing a project. “Genetics is an area that has been changing very quickly,” says Tiessen. “For example, with miscanthus a number of companies including ourselves will be introducing new cultivars to the market over the next 12 to 18 months. This will be an investment that was started back in 2008, and we will start reaping some rewards of that investment in the next 13 to 15 months.”
NEF recently developed a key technology called the CEEDS system, which is focused on getting a range of high-yielding energy grasses established easily and efficiently, not just the ones that could be easily propagated. Many of these crops can now be seeded in minimum-till systems using conventional drills and CEEDS planting propagules. This reduces establishment costs of miscanthus by more than 50 per cent and transport logistics for planting material by up to 80 per cent, as well as improves crop establishment, growth, vigour and yields.
“The platform we are working with through CEEDS has allowed us to diversify into various other species very quickly,” explains Tiessen. “We have purpose-grown biomass feedstocks that are suited for energy or fibre or other uses, or crops specifically for feed. NEF has seeds available for trial and for some commercial applications, as well as propagation material that has been available from the beginning.”
CEEDS has three different types of cultivars available for various uses, including dry, intermediate and wet feedstocks. The dry feedstocks, such as miscanthus, have a high cold tolerance and are suited for power uses. The intermediate feedstocks, such as Arundo donax, have a medium cold tolerance and are suited for mixed uses. The wet feedstocks, such as Napier Grass and Energy Cane, require warmer climates, have a low cold tolerance and are suited to liquid fuels.
Once the genetics and species are in place and in the required format, then NEF plans the feedstock supply. “We developed a software program called Biomass Direct in partnership with Muddy Boots that manages the feedstock supply for farmers, farm groups or end users,” says Tiessen. “Biomass Direct is a software system that enables total traceability, sustainability and verification through the biomass supply chain, including crop agronomy, yield prediction, collection and logistics, direct feedstock trading, sustainability audits, and royalty collection.”
Although it takes a lot of time and resources to move emerging economies and opportunities forward, Tiessen is pleased to be seeing a high percentage of NEF projects moving forward from concept to pilot scale demonstration to commercial applications. “We have been developing new technologies and formulations under the Sunatura brand to be able to take some of these plant fibres and put them into consumable products that are finding acceptance and competitive advantage,” he notes. “For example, we have a joint venture that has commercialized a technology from the University of Guelph to produce composite replacements for styrofoam or plastics such as food packaging or containers. Our first commercial trial is a bolt bin available in Home Hardware stores across the country that is doing very well, and we are getting ready to scale up production.”
One of the challenges is scaling up, which is required in most cases to be able to seize opportunities. “We also have an animal bedding opportunity that will be set up at satellite locations and in partnerships with groups over the next two years, including four locations in Canada, six locations in the U.S. and four locations in Europe,” says Tiessen. “Our biggest challenge is many large retailers want to have products available in all of their distribution centres across North America or Europe, not just in one region.”
Therefore NEF wants to set up regional distribution and production of various products, and hopefully partners can create other new opportunities within that sector. “Having a portfolio of potential end uses is much needed, balancing energy with forages or bedding or some other agricultural-based opportunity that can potentially move into a direct replacement for consumer products,” says Tiessen. “From the NEF point of view, we are very excited about the opening up of enormous opportunities for primary producers and other partners.”