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Genome firm will sell biomass seeds for ’09 growing season

Assistant Editor

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A company better known during the past 11 years for research and development of gene traits on behalf of seed companies has decided to hang out its own retail shingle by supplying biomass energy growers with seed stock.

Ceres, Inc., through the name Blade Energy Crops, will begin selling genetically enhanced switchgrass and sorghum seeds later this year for 2009 planting. Anna Rath, Ceres vice president of commercial development, explained the seed is bred on the company’s knowledge of desirable traits and development trials, but is not transgenic nor otherwise genetically modified.

Though the seed stock is designed to play to the traits cellulosic biorefiners demand – high yield and energy output, strength for better growing emergence and establishment – Rath said it is not dangerous for livestock or other animals. It just doesn’t have the starchy or tasty appeal of food (such as one of traditional sorghum’s uses).

“We are aiming for the highest possible number of gallons per acre, or more Btus, on the power side of the industry,” she explained, adding the mature crops may be used for both cellulosic ethanol – for example – and power generation.

“There are lots of different things you can do with biomass,” she said, noting the economy is shifting more away from hydrocarbon-based (oil, natural gas, coal) into carbohydrate-based energy.
“We are positioning Blade as a premium seed brand for biofuel and biopower feedstocks,” said Ceres President and CEO Richard Hamilton. “For growers, that means high yields and greater yield stability. Downstream, it means easier processing, and ultimately, more energy per ton of biomass.

“From both an economic and environmental perspective, if we are going to turn plant matter into fuel, we should use feedstocks that give us the maximum fuel yield per acre.”

“Different products in the portfolio are going to be adapted to different regions of the country,” Rath said.

She added Ceres has established relationships with some biomass production facilities which will contract with nearby farmers, and that individual farmers with no contract have also expressed interest in switchgrass and biomass sorghum. Part of their appeal, she explained, is they can be grown where other crops cannot – they require less water and quality of soil than, say, corn or soybeans.
“We’re really excited to be the first company bringing the first energy crop to market,” Rath said.

So far, the company sees the most interest from the Midwest, the Southeast and in the western United States outside the Corn Belt.
Though Ceres will sell internationally, Rath said it sees the United States as its primary customer because there are the most factors at play here to demand biomass: the desire for a secure domestic fuel and power supply, a sophisticated agricultural community and practices and a certain level of research and production in biomass already.

Ceres has benefited over the past few years from several USDA and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grants under the federal Biomass Research and Development Initiative. Earlier this year, the company became a research partner with ICM, Inc. of Kansas, on a biorefinery DOE is funding to develop cellulosic ethanol production.
According to Ceres, because of high yields, these energy crops can produce more fuel per acre than current biofuel crops, and cut greenhouse gas emissions more since they require fewer inputs and actually build new topsoil.

Ethanol made from switchgrass, the company stated, produces 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum, and nearly five times more net energy than starch-based ethanol.

Switchgrass, sorghum and canes are part of a category of closely related species known as C4 grasses, which Ceres described as “the natural world’s most efficient engines of photosynthesis, the process by which plants store solar energy in the form of carbohydrates.”

The Blade brand will appear on the company’s seed packaging and farm-oriented marketing materials.

The plant breeding and biotech firm will maintain the Ceres name as its corporate identity, as well as in its collaborations with biorefineries and biofuel technology providers.