March 26, 2007

BIO World Congress is bio-energized by cellulosic ethanol

The 4th Annual BIO World Congress on Biotechnology & Bioprocessing was held under ideal conditions in Orlando between March 22-24. In the past the focus has been on a wider range of industries including pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, nanotechnology, and plastics. This year, cellulosic ethanol took center stage.

Many academics were on hand including post-grads from my old alma mater (Cornell) who were furiously typing up their notes of the many excellent presentations. For the first time I didn't take any notes - I took pictures (with a 7 megapixel Casio Xilim) which is an excellent way to capture the blurrying array of slides for later mental digestion. One thing I have learned about left-brained presenters - they tend to cram more information into their visuals than they address. At a parent orientation at MIT I saw students photographing chalkboards full of organic chemistry equations and I thought - boy that looks like the way to go!

Their were five tracks running simultaneously: Biofuels and bioenergy, Renewable feedstocks, Chemicals & biochemicals, Consumer manufacturing and bioprocessing, and Business development infrastructure and public policy. Probably 75% of the breakout sessions were focused on some aspect of biomass conversion of ag and forestry feedstock for the production of ethanol and bioproducts: CE in California, Woody crops for biorefineries, the use of genomics to improve biological conversion of biomass, the emerging defense department bioenergy market, reshaping the paper and pulp industry... on and on. I needed Hermione's time shifter - but the printed brochure of abstracts is a goldmine of summary information.

My chief objective is to meet the presenters and network. It was a field day for me. I spent most of my time with Richard Germain of Navigant Consulting and Jim Stewart of BRI (who used to work with Walt Disney and saw the first briefings that went into the conversion of Orlando into Walt Disney World!). Vinod Khosla gave the keynote and rousing lunch addresses from Jay Keasling (UC/Berkeley educator and 2006 Discover Magazine Scientist of the Year) and Alexander Karsner of the DOE/EERE stressed the national importance of the proceedings.

Aside from BRI there were several winners of the coveted DOE cellulosic ethanol grants giving presentations - Diversa and Celunol, Bluefire, Iogen, and Broin. I didn't see anyone from Abengoa or Rangefuels (but Doug Cameron of Khosla Ventures was in attendance).

The development of fast-growing ag and forest biomass was a hot topic of conversation including presentations by ArborGen 's Nathan Ramsey. From my vantage point as a marketing consultant for Price BIOstock Services in forestry biomass I found repeated references to the importance of forest stewardship and the critical role that the paper and pulp industries can play in achieving clean biomass to energy conversions. People are not aware that 44% of existing renewable electrical energy is being generated by the forestry industries.

The press was there and I was able to knosh with fellow blogger David Adams with whom I keep a running online relationship. He cornered Vinod Khosla for an excellent interview and introduced me to some journalists including Paul Elias of the Associated Press.

One panel relating to ongoing bioenergy education and communications was moderated by Terry Nipp of Sun Grant Association. Mark Downing of the Oakridge National Laboratory spoke of DOE plans to foster opportunities among emerging technologies in bioenergy. He provided insight to five years planning (2007-2012) by the Energy Efficiency an Renewable Energy division of the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Sun Grant Initiative is setting up regional feedstock partnerships to evaluate biomass production potential in each of the large scale biogeographical regions of the country.

One recipient of Sun Grant funding is a new educational resource called BioWeb that is an online resource for bioenergy and bioproducts. It will be premiere in beta form online on March 28th and releasing in full in mid-April. I videotaped Kelly Tiller, website editor, who described it as "an encyclopedia of everything biomass" that is approachable for every level of user. What makes it unique compared to the BIOenergy WIKI is that it is peer-reviewed with restricted contributions that are limited to biomass. Their creation of graphical interfaces could be very useful in simplifying understanding of the many technical complexities and relationships of this industry. They will also report on the emerging findings and products from the regional feedstock partnerships.

Other than Jim Stewart's BRI presentation on the final day I saw no mention of bioconversion of syngas through the use of catalysts or bioorganisms. Syngas fermentation would be almost a universal solution to feedstock conversion to ethanol and other chemicals - enabling us to convert blended ag, forestry, and urban waste in all its forms. Other companies are on the trail of this exciting technology but none of them appeared on the docket or in attendance.

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