Closing The Biomass Loop

on September 21, 2011 at 9:30 AM

In the quest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the renewables sector, companies are seeking solutions to capture the waste.

Chromatin, a venture-backed biotechnology Chicago-based company, believes it has found the solution by using sorghum to fuel electricity, which it touts itself as an even more commercially viable alternative than other feedstocks such as algae.

Chromatin plans to announce today that it will test the feasibility of using sorghum to produce electricity at two power plants in Bakersfield and Fresno, California, which are jointly owned by Constellation Energy (NYSE: CEG) and North American Power Group (NAPG). Constellation Energy, through two of its subsidiaries, and Chromatin, announced today that they signed a memorandum of understanding to conduct the test burn.

“The test burn, if successful, will be a major step towards renewable power on a commercial scale and can help power generators meet the looming emissions standards,” Daphne Preuss, Chromatin’s CEO, told Breaking Energy.

The ability to derive power from renewable biomass that is grown specifically as a fuel is commonly referred to as “closed loop biomass.” The three fields of biomass sorghum, which were grown only for power generation, in the future will be able to “consume roughly the volume of greenhouses gases that are created when the earlier crop was burned,” Chromatin said.

Sorghum is a good alternative because it contains high energy content, can be grown on marginal lands, and only uses less than half the water and chemicals of field crops such as corn or sugar cane.

The two plants currently use coal, petroleum coke and agricultural and construction wood waste.

Chromatin says its first test field of 30 acres in the Imperial Valley in California will be harvested in September and October. An additional two fields totaling 65 acres in California’s San Joaquin Valley will also supply one of the power plants.

By staggering the crops, Chromatin said it can produce a “steady supply” for the power plants.

Using sorghum as a new fuel source would be helpful for California, since power companies are required to generate 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

“If we can rely more on sustainable biomass to fuel our plants and capture greenhouse gases, we would be taking important steps toward generating the clean power that is
the cornerstone of California energy policy,” said Steve Gross, Managing Director of West Region operations for Constellation Energy’s Power Generation group. “We were attracted to sorghum biomass because it offers potentially high energy content and can be handled in our plants with only minor modifications to our equipment.”

“The success of this production-scale test of energy sorghum shows that closed-loop biomass for power generation can provide an additional and very exciting market opportunity for California’s farmers and can help create new jobs for our community,” said Timothy E. Kelley, president and CEO of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation. “As is apparent from the quality of the crop that’s now reaching maturity near El Centro, Chromatin has developed a biomass sorghum hybrid that is ideally suited for the Imperial Valley.”

Chromatin uses its proprietary technology programs to develop sorghum seeds using its crop-breeding and biotechnology innovations. The company also licenses these innovative gene-stacking technologies to leading agriculture companies and applies its technology platforms to its subsidiary, Sorghum Partners LLC, which supplies hybrid sorghum seeds in the US and more than 20 other countries.

The company has received an undisclosed amount of funding from Burrill & Company, Foragen, Illinois Ventures, Malaysian Life Sciences Capital Fund, Quantitative Financial Strategies, Unilever Technology Ventures and Venture Investors.

Constellation Energy is a Baltimore, Maryland-based supplier of power, natural gas and energy products and services and generated revenue of $14.3 billion in 2010.

Photo Caption: As Chromatin prepared to harvest its first crop of hybrid sorghum for power generation, the crop in El Centro, Calif. was inspected by Daphne Preuss, Chromatin’s CEO (middle right), and Steve Gross, Managing Director of West Region operations for Constellation Energy’s Power Generation group (middle left).