Gaze skyward in any large city and you’ll see planes in flight, thousands of planes shuttling passengers and cargo around the world. And they all have something in common: They’re burning fuel. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates world jet fuel consumption at more than 5 million barrels a day. Do we even want to think of what that’s doing to our environment?
Until recently, there’s been little alternative to petroleum-based jet fuel. Resonance® Carinata from Calyx Bio-Ventures Inc. is one such alternative.
Calyx is the largest shareholder in Agrisoma Biosciences Inc., producing drop-in replacements for petroleum-based biodiesel and biojet fuel that can be used in existing engines without blending. Agrisoma recently made aviation history in what Popular Science Magazine called one of the Top 25 Most Important Scientific Events of 2012, the first successful completion of a civil jet flight powered by 100% renewable, drop-in biofuel.
Besides just running on fuel from a renewable source, the flight recorded a 25% reduction in particle emissions, a 49% reduction in black carbon, and a 50% reduction in aerosol emissions. Hinting at significant savings for the aviation industry, the fuel also showed a 1.5% improvement in fuel usage compared to conventional jet fuel.
The biofuel used in that flight was made from Agrisoma’s Carinata. I spoke with Don Konantz, President and CEO of Calyx Bio-Ventures, about this remarkable plant and its potential to revolutionize the aviation industry.
Jules: Don, tell us about Resonance® Carinata and why it’s important.
Don: Resonance® Carinata is the trade name of the plant. Carinata is an industrial, non-food emerging oil seed that’s grown in our hotter and drier regions. The wild type originally comes from Ethiopia as the Ethiopian mustard plant. The biggest thing about Carinata, and specifically Resonance® Carinata, is that we’ve been breeding this plant and working with it to tailor it to grow in the lowest cost production zones of the North American prairie region. This is our least arable land on which there is typically a rotation strategy. A farmer will grow a wheat crop, then perhaps come back with another wheat crop, and then he’ll let the land lay fallow. Of course, where we have fallow land, that land is purely uneconomical. It’s just sitting there. By growing Carinata in these low cost production zones, not only are we getting a low cost crop but were not substituting any food acres for industrial use.
Jules: What other advantages does Carinata offer?
Don: There are so many advantages that Carinata offers to farmers. It scales within the existing infrastructure so you don’t need any special equipment. It’s a non-food crop so the oil that comes out of it — with a long carbon chain — is specially tailored for industrial use. We’re not trying to grow a food crop and then have the surplus find its way into the industrial market. We are growing a specifically industrial product.
Jules: How does Carinata serve double duty?
Don: The by-product, the co-product if you will, is animal feed. When its harvested, you take the seed off the field and it’s crushed in order to extract the oil. What’s left behind after the oil is extracted is these husks of the oil seeds. Those husks are ground up and fed to cattle as a 10% finished cattle feed. It’s a good source of soy-less high protein feed. Last year we sold the meal into feed lots in the U.S. We’re now working on getting the meal approved for sale in Canada and we expect to have approval any day now. We’re very excited about the prospects.
Jules: Is Resonance® Carinata genetically modified?
Don: No, it’s a natural product, conventionally bred, not genetically modified in any way. We have the most advanced breeding program for this crop anywhere in the world and we’ve made tremendous advancement with conventional breeding which is the crossing of various Carinata lines. At the end of the growing season we track which plant lines did the best and which ones we should extract for certain traits. This is all non-GMO. We have been experimenting with a technology, a gene stacking technology, in the lab only, and there have been some very compelling results with that product; as a result of genetic modification the yields are significantly higher. But there is a lot of concern about that, and there are regulatory issues. But we have an immediately addressable market with a conventionally bred product and we’re just very happy to work within the non-GMO space right now.
Jules: Where do you see the biofuel industry heading in the next decade or so?
Don: I think the biofuel industry is an exciting place to be. There have been some very significant IPOs, and there’s been a lot of capital that’s flowed into this area. The advanced biofuels is where we’re seeing some very exciting science and some very exciting feed stocks are starting to come to the fore. But I think there’s going to be a division, those concepts that are really science projects that don’t make it or that have further science to do, and those that move to center stage and become well developed parts of our everyday fabric. I don’t think it’s too much different from what we saw with all the excitement with the dot com industry and the whole move to doing things on-line. I think there is a lot of excitement and for sure it’s here to stay. But not everyone is going to make it and not all these programs are actually real or economical nor are they scientifically grounded.
Jules: What needs to be done to further promote the use of biofuel?
Don: I think what we’re looking for — one of the greatest concerns — is usage mandated by the government, so we can get the industry up the curve. We can’t allow the burgeoning bio industry to be snuffed out just as it’s starting to walk. It’s just starting to get going, yet in the United States, the principal market in North America, the Renewable Fuel Standard is under huge pressure and the blender’s credits are all going away. These will hopefully be renewed, as they have in the previous policy initiatives over the last few years, because it’s very difficult and challenging to do business with uncertainty in the policy environment. I’m looking specifically for governments to hold the line on blending mandates. In Canada that’s the Low Carbon Fuel Standard and in the States it’s the Renewable Fuel Standard. I’m also looking for governments to start bringing forward mandates for alternative aviation fuels. This is an area that is of real importance to the advancement of alternate and high density biofuels for aviation.
Jules: How long do you think it will be before the average traveler is flying on biofuel?
Don: I think its going to be sooner than a lot of people think. The airline industry has made a very significant commitment to reducing carbon and they have done so with an eye to an industry-owned solution. They’re saying, “Let us work this out. Let us come up with the best solution,” as opposed to having government step in and drive them to do something that they otherwise wouldn’t do. They want to see a made-in-aviation industry solution, which solves a whole host of problems for the aviation industry. I think within five years we’re going to start seeing bio aviation fuel blended into petroleum-derived fuels on a regular basis, more than just trial and public relations-style flights, but actually becoming part of what goes into the wings of aircraft. I am really excited about the fact that there are a couple of airlines showing movies about it when you buckle up your seat belts, right now in North America. And there’s a couple of airlines that have made a significant move toward biofuels as part of their future. So when you take that initiative, and then there’s some government mandate to reduce carbon and a push from government to keep everyone’s feet on the fire, then I think you’re going to see this thing really happen, probably faster than anyone thinks.
Calyx Bio-Ventures has recently strengthened its board with industry expertise and is in negotiations to add a downstream partner to its value chain. Add positive moves by industry and government and we should see Don’s prediction of commercial flights using biofuel sooner than we may think.