Hawaii conference highlights biomass advances

By Jerry W. Kram
About 340 biotechnology and bioenergy leaders gathered in Honolulu to review the latest biomass developments at the second annual Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy. One common thread through many presentations was the need to develop low-volume, high-margin niche products, such as resins derived from lignin, to smooth out the market swings of high-volume, low-margin products, such as ethanol and biodiesel.

Presentations from the biofuels track of the summit addressed new practices being introduced into the marketplace and discoveries being made by academic researchers. Some novel processes for biofuels production include hot-water pretreatment for cellulosic feedstocks and the use of enzymes to degum vegetable oils. Attendees were interested in the use of alternative fermenters, such as species of Clostridium and Corynebacterium, in consolidated bioprocessing. Unique feedstocks, such as tropical sugar beets, sweet sorghum, coppiced eucalyptus and beetle-killed lodgepole pine, were also examined.

"The Pacific Rim Summit showcased the latest biotech advances in feedstocks, production processes and novel biobased products," said Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's Industrial and Environmental Section. "Building new business partnerships within the bioenergy industry, particularly along the Pacific Rim, was a primary objective of the summit."

The conference, which was hosted by BIO, the American Chemical Society and the state of Hawaii, featured more than 100 presentations from researchers and scientists. Plenary session speakers included Pat Gruber of Gevo Inc., who spoke on the development of next-generation biofuels; and Jiayang Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Andy Karsner of the U.S. DOE, who presented the status of biofuels in the Pacific Rim. Neal Gutterson of Mendel Biotechnology, Richard Zalesky of Chevron Technology Ventures LLC and E. Alan Kennet of Gay & Robinson Inc. discussed sustainable biofuels.

"As we heard from the plenary speakers, government policies that support development of the industry, which have been driven by concerns about the environment and future economic growth, have been vital in attracting the private investment needed to make this industry successful," Erickson said. "Pacific Rim countries have been in the lead in implementing these policies."