Mendel Biotechnology, BP Biofuels to conduct miscanthus trials

By Bryan Sims | March 22, 2012

Hayward, Calif.-based dedicated energy crop developer Mendel Biotechnology Inc., together with its wholly owned subsidiary Mendel Bioenergy Seeds, and BP Biofuels have signed a four-year agreement to conduct a demonstration field trial of Mendel’s trademarked PowerCane Miscanthus and evaluate its performance as feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production at BP Biofuels’ 1.4 MMgy demonstration-scale production plant in Jennings, La.

A total of 100 acres of PowerCane Miscanthus is expected to be planted early this year near the Jennings cellulosic ethanol demo facility, and the first biomass harvest from these fields is expected to occur next year.

“We are expecting planting to begin in the next few weeks,” said Rasto Ivanic, senior director of business development for Mendel Biotechnology. “It really depends on the weather and on when the soil is ready for planting, but I think in Louisiana we are thinking late March through mid-May window.”

The company noted that while currently available miscanthus varieties have outstanding agronomic and biomass performance characteristics, they typically have to be planted as a rhizome or live plug, which requires additional investment and equipment for growers of the dedicated energy crop.

Ivanic explained Mendel Biotechnology’s proprietary PowerCane Miscanthus seeds are ideal for planting in location-specific areas, adding that positive economic returns are largely contingent on the cost of land the miscanthus seeds would be planted on, and costs of herbicides.

“By in large, we expect the economics of the miscanthus to be not too far off from what you can get from wood that’s being used as a biofuels source,” Ivanic said. “We bench ourselves to be the lowest cost alternative and we’re very confident that our future commercial product, PowerCane Miscanthus, will meet those criteria.”

While BP Biofuels controls 1.4 MMgy of ethanol production at its Jennings cellulosic ethanol demonstration-scale facility, the company’s priority this year is developing a $400 million, 36 MMgy cellulosic commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol project in Highlands County, Fla., which is expected to begin production by next year, according to BP’s website.

In July 2010, during the height of the Gulf disaster, BP acquired the lignocellulosic biofuels assets from Verenium for $98.3 million. As a result of the acquisition, BP became the sole owner of Vercipia Biofuels, the entity moving forward with the development of the commercial cellulosic ethanol project in Florida.

While Mendel Biotechnology’s PowerCane Miscanthus will specifically be planted, cultivated and harvested to feed BP Biofuels’ existing cellulosic demo facility in Jennings and, eventually, its future commercial biorefinery in Florida, Ivanic emphasized that the energy crop is amenable for a range of other downstream applications and conversion processes, such as thermal and power, biobased chemicals and advanced hydrocarbon biofuels. 

“We know [PowerCane Miscanthus] has sugars that are critical for biofuels and we’ve also conducted test burns on it [for biopower],” Ivanic said. “Essentially, we will let the market decide what applications are the best.”

(This article first appeared at Biorefining Magazine.)