Ceres awarded $5 million for energy grasses

Energy crop company Ceres, Inc. announced that it plans to expand an advanced trait development project to increase biomass yields of several energy grasses by as much as 40 percent in coming years, while simultaneously decreasing the use of inputs such as nitrogen fertilizers. The project, which was selected by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) from among 3,700 renewable energy proposals, will be funded in part by a $5 million advanced research grant.

Created in 2007 by the America Competes Act, the prestigious grant program is managed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), a DOE organization modeled after the defense organization, DARPA, which helped launch a number of revolutionary new technologies, including a precursor to today’s internet. Similar to the DARPA review process, Ceres’ technology was examined by leading United States energy science and technology experts and ARPA-E’s own program managers. Evaluations were based on the potential for high impact as well as scientific and technical merit.

Projections indicate that the Ceres traits alone could displace 1.3 billion barrels of oil and 58 million tons of coal over a ten year period. 1.2 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer could be eliminated (about the amount of nitrogen needed for 24 million acres of cotton), among other benefits.

“At the heart of our ambitions for a full-scale bioenergy industry will be how well we utilize our land resources,” said Richard Hamilton, Ceres chief executive. “With greater use of technology, increased productivity will go hand-in-hand with greater sustainability.” He noted that higher yields reduce the land area needed to support individual projects.

The three-year project was projected to begin in December. Ceres researchers will test its advanced traits in a variety of energy grasses such as switchgrass, sorghum and miscanthus. Productivity and input requirements, such as fertilizer, will be evaluated, as well as expected improvements to carbon and nitrogen cycles. Upon successful completion, the Ceres traits would undergo a customary evaluation by USDA prior to full commercialization.