Among several key themes emerging from yesterdays’s Leadership Summit on Biofuels and Cleantech at the 2008 BIO International Convention, two stood above the rest:
1) crop yield will continue to increase and will be able to satisfy both food and bioenergy needs; and
2) moving from laboratory-based early-stage products to commercial products will be the next stage of biofuel development.
Richard Hamilton, president of Ceres, presented a dynamic case for biotechnology advances sustaining a long-term increase in crop yields on both marginal and primary cropland. Hamilton presented convincing and clear evidence that biotechnology-enhanced plants yield more per acre not just by “percentages but by multiples.” If farmers the world over used conservation farming techniques and planted crops appropriate for the topography – for example switchgrass in locations with marginal topsoil and corn in locations with the best topsoil – the world would have a surplus of both food and fuel crops in just about every region.
Other speakers addressed the challenge of transforming to a true commercial-scale industry. There have been many biofuel advances in the lab, but scaling up to the level of true production to have an impact on demand is more of a scientific and process challenge than how to create the initial fuel. Most of the companies presenting during today’s first panel, such as Verenium and LS9, expect commercial-scale development sometime around 2011.
Biofuels face the same dilemma as many other great inventions stretching back through the industrial revolution: how do you deliver a great invention for mass consumption? Often those who develop the mass market scalability are celebrated more than the actual inventor. Many remember Henry Ford for bringing automobile ownership to the masses, but far fewer remember Karl Benz for developing the automobile in the first place. Today’s biofuel companies face the same challenges, and their advancements in scalability and crop yields are on an equally blistering pace of development.