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Recap: AWIS Biofuels Panel Discussion, March 2011

I recently attended a panel discussion on career opportunities in the Biofuels business sponsored by the Los Angeles Chapter of AWIS. There were 2 representatives from Ceres, and 2 representatives from Sapphire Energy. The following are general meeting notes I took of that panel discussion.

First Richard Hamilton, President of CEO of Ceres, spoke. He started by outlining the challenges of the current fossil fuels. Oil prices are increasing because of increased demand from emerging countries (including India and China), reduced supply as an increasing number of known oil reserves have peaked in their oil production and not enough new sources start production. Furthermore, increased regulation due to environmental concerns and decreased political stability in key oil producing regions all contribute to the increasing oil price. Lastly, Dr. Hamilton pointed out that oil prices are also increasing as the dollar becomes more and more devalued.

When we consider that oil is also one of the biggest sources of our trade imbalance (something around 54%), a strong case can be made to reorient ourselves in our energy policy.
Dr. Hamilton pointed out that although President Obama was advocating for “clean electrons” (solar, wind, geothermal), carbon-based energy carriers should not be neglected because “electrons are not oil” (Personal Note: This was just to emphasize the easy confusion between clean electricity and cleaner, more sustainable fuels, as President Obama also included furthering biofuel development in his agenda.) In other words, while carbon-based fuels have a very high stored energy potential, electricity is a form of energy that must be used instantly. As a side remark, batteries of course exist, but currently the technology for storing a lot of electricity in a light and affordable battery does not exist on a large-production scale. Furthermore, oil is not just used for heating and transportation. Even if we, according to some Toyota projection, started to sell 100% hybrids in 2012, and 50% plug-in hybrids in 2013, we would not be able to become energy independent immediately. The increase in oil dependency would not increase quickly anymore and possibly even slightly fall, but the oil dependency remains. The reason for this is that unlike light transportation, heavy load transportation, air and ship transportation cannot be replaced with electric engines in the foreseeable future. Additionally, many products we use nowadays were derived from oil. Merely changing to electric transportation will not deal with these issues.

All these factors lead to the conclusion that the development of biofuels no matter what the source is becomes necessary. As he put it:”Every molecule of carbon is needed” to face the challenges coming from decrease abundance of fossil fuels.

Dr. Hamilton then proceeded to address a common concern: that energy crops are competing with food agriculture. His case against the energy crop “myth” was as followed:
  1. Agriculture is not operating at its peak efficiency. Energy crops could be grown without competition to food crops if these inefficiencies were addressed. He mentioned CRPs (paying farmers in poor countries not to use their farm land) as one example of inefficiencies. (Personal Note: This argument is partially based on the assumption that increased efficiencies has no negative side-effects.)
  2. Agriculture is not static either. By this he means that crop yields over the last thousand and especially last century have increased exponentially. He concluded that with research and development yields can still further be improved. (Personal Note: The graph seemed to suggest that crop yields will continue to grow at an exponential rate. Infinite exponential growth is very unlikely but the question is how long an exponential growth in yields can be maintained with continued research and development.)
As a result, Dr. Hamilton concluded that 10% of agricultural land can provide the bioenergy source of the world without competition to food agriculture. He claimed that the increase in basic food commodities is not due to  energy crops, but can rather be attributed to increases in fossil fuels, and fertilizer prices and proceeded to show us a correlational chart which correlated the price of oil with the price of common food commodities. He then briefly touched on the two products that Ceres is marketing to meet the demand: sorghum and switchgrass. With this, Dr. Hamilton made the case for any form of biofuels setting up the stage for the other three talks.

Dr. Julissa Sosa, who is a Scientist, talked about the research that she is doing at Ceres. These include screening and selecting for grass strains that are hardier, that is, they can grow in more salty areas, or can grow in soils contaminated with heavy metals such as aluminum. Aluminum in particular is toxic to normal plants because it inhibits root growth, which is important for physical support through anchorage and access to water and nutrients. The rationale behind her research was that plants that can grow on marginal lands can be cheaply grown without competing with more valuable agricultural land.

Next Tracy Duong, a Scientist at Sapphire Energy, introduced her company. With an introduction that was very similar to Dr. Hamilton’s, Sapphire Energies justified its existence because they believe algae provide a more efficient platform for the production of biofuels. Notably, Sapphire Energies is rapidly moving towards commercialization. They are in the process of building a pilot algal biofuels plant which includes growth, and harvesting of “green crude”, which they hope to feed into existing refinery processes.

Lastly, Dr. Yan Poon, who is both a Section leader and Co-founder of Sapphire Energy, spoke in broad strokes of some of the research going on at Sapphire Energies. Briefly, they use insertional mutagenesis combined with selectional screens, as well as competition assays to select for algal strains that have properties they are looking for (salt and herbicide resistance for protection, easy settling (called bio-flocculation) for more efficient harvesting, high oil content or fatty acids for increased yields).

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