“Outside of Brazil, today Europe has the most existing infrastructure, some of the most developed technologies and the most favorable policy supporting the bioeconomy. However, theoretical concerns about land use are being allowed undue sway, which makes the outlook uncertain. Climate change deniers are having a similar effect in America. In contrast, China is showing singular resolve in its commitment to climate and carbon”. To say it – in this interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Anna Rath, founder and CEO of NexSteppe, the U.S. company dedicated to pioneering the next generation of scalable, reliable, cost-effective feedstock solutions for the biofuels, biopower and biobased products industries. Using advanced breeding techniques and cutting-edge analytical technologies, NexSteppe is developing Malibu sweet sorghum and Palo Alto biomass sorghum to produce feedstocks tailored for these biobased industries. With Anna we talk about biomass and bioeconomy at a Global level.
Mario Bonaccorso: What is the bioeconomy from your point of view?
Anna Rath: As a seed company focused on developing crops that are optimized to be dedicated feedstocks for the bioeconomy, we view the bioeconomy as the set of industries using some form of biomass feedstock to produce alternatives for anything traditionally produced from any fossil fuel. This includes both first and second generation biofuels, biopower, biogas and biobased products (i.e. chemicals and materials produced from sugars or lignocellulosic biomass).
MB: Your company is focused on developing and commercializing dedicated crops and supply chain solutions for use in producing biofuels, biopower and biobased products. What is the peculiarity of the biomass supplied by NexSteppe?
AR: NexSteppe has chosen to focus on sorghum because of its favorable characteristics for growers (e.g. high yields resulting in high revenues, ability to rotate with other crops, low nutrient and water requirements, existing management practices, equipment and crop protection products), processors (e.g. broad geographic range, ability to be planted on marginal land) and the seed company (e.g. huge genetic diversity, rapid product development cycle, inherent IP protection). With our sorghums, we’ve worked backward from an understanding of specific market needs and then used the breadth and diversity of our germplasm, breeding know-how and related technologies to develop optimized products for the relevant environments, seasons and processes.
Today, we have two product lines on the market, our Palo Alto biomass sorghums, optimized for high biomass yields and low moisture at harvest for use in biopower, and our Malibu sweet sorghums, optimized for the level, duration and stability of peak sugars to be a source of readily available fermentable sugars for production of ethanol or other fuels and chemicals. We are also developing a product line focused on methane yields for the biogas industry and one focused on conversion yields for 2G biofuels.
MB: What are the key advantages of a dedicated crop?
AR: The key advantages of a dedicated crop are scalability, reliability and quality.
- Scalability: High yields mean that the required amount of biomass for a given scale of facility can be collected from a far smaller radius. Often, dedicated crops can be a useful complement to existing residue resources to help reduce this collection radius.
- Reliability: The fact that a dedicated crop is the grower’s focus, rather than the afterthought that residues can be, make these crops an essential element of a reliable feedstock supply. Many facilities are today operating at far less than capacity or only intermittently because of a feedstock supply chain plan that focused solely on wastes or residues.
- Quality: A dedicated crop affords opportunities for higher quality through both optimized genetics and management practices. NexSteppe has a dedicated analytical chemistry team focused on understanding the composition of our crops and the implications of this composition for various downstream processes. All of these insights are incorporated into our breeding program to screen for improved genetics. We also focus on optimizing field practices to maximize this genetic potential. This can come in the form of choice of location and thus soil characteristics, approach to nutrients, chemical management practices or harvest techniques.
MB: As far as you’re concerned, which agricultural feedstocks are best for industrial uses?
AR: We believe the best way to meet the world’s needs for fuels and energy as well as feed and food, and generally reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, is to maximize the productivity of every hectare. This means that the best crops to use for energy and industrial purposes are those that can grow on marginal, degraded or contaminated land; those that can grow on prime agricultural land during a season that is not optimal for grain crops (e.g. due to inadequate or uncertain rainfall); and/or those that, through their ability to rotate with food or feed crops, can produce yield benefits for those crops.
Sorghum has low water and nutrient requirements, it can grow in soils that are not optimal for grain crops, it has been shown to be an effective remediator of contaminated soils, and it produces yield benefits when grown in rotation with some food and feed crops. This is in stark contrast to perennial dedicated energy crops, which require dedicated land over many years and thus eliminate the potential for grower revenue from a main food/feed crop as well as the potential for other crop rotation benefits.
Our sorghums were grown on nearly 10,000 hectares in Brazil this past growing season, and the vast majority of this was either following soybean, during a season where there is insufficient rain to reliably grow a grain crop, or during the “renewal period” between sugarcane plantings, when the land would otherwise lie fallow. In addition, we have demonstrated that rotation with our sorghums can increase soybean yields by up to 15%. This means that, contrary to the theoretical assumptions made in land use debates that growing a dedicated energy crop necessarily displaces a food or feed crop, our actual experience, at significant scale, is that using the right energy crops can avoid the displacement of food or feed crops, and that growing energy crops can actually increase food crop yields on the same land due to the opportunities for and benefits of crop rotation.
MB: America, Europe or Asia. Which is the best place to invest in bioeconomy?
AR: Outside of Brazil, today Europe has the most existing infrastructure, some of the most developed technologies and the most favorable policy supporting the bioeconomy. However, theoretical concerns about land use are being allowed undue sway, which makes the outlook uncertain. Climate change deniers are having a similar effect in America. In contrast, China is showing singular resolve in its commitment to climate and carbon. It has announced plans to launch a national cap-and-trade scheme beginning in 2017 and just this past week introduced a floor on oil prices of $40. Combined with the scale of its economic growth and the resulting urgent need for sustainable solutions for renewable fuels and energy, these moves could easily catapult China into a leadership position in the bioeconomy.
Is there an American law you could suggest to the European Union to support the bioeconomy?
AR: What this industry needs is the same as what any industry needs: a stable policy environment that gives investors the confidence they need that the opportunity is not only here today but will also be here tomorrow as the technologies and facilities they are investing in reach maturity. Both Europe and America, in different ways and to different extents, have failed to provide the necessary policy stability to produce a favorable investment climate. The agreements reached at COP21 as well as some of the related policies, such as those in China mentioned above, are a step in the right direction, but there is as yet no country that has created an ideal environment for the bioeconomy.
An example of the difficulty is that many countries endeavor to promote renewables in the energy sector through some form of investment tax credit, which works well for solar and wind, where the investment is up-front and the “feedstock” (i.e. sun, wind) is free, but doesn’t work at all for biopower where up-front investment may be far lower but there are ongoing costs for biomass feedstock. Biopower is the only one of these renewables that can actually provide a baseload power source (i.e. always on) rather than the intermittent and not dependable availability of sun and wind. And yet, other than a few places, including Italy, this form of renewable power is not nearly as well supported as others.