Commercial micropropagation creates sterile biomass crops

By Susanne Retka Schill
A major hurdle in the commercialization of high-yielding, sterile biomass crops is being addressed in a joint venture announced this fall. Georgia-based Biomass Gas & Electric LLC recently licensed the rights to a micropropagation technology developed by University of South Carolina researchers Laszlo Marton and Mihaly Czako that facilitates the mass planting of sterile-seed plants.

The researchers worked with the heavy biomass-producing Arundo donax (giant reed) to develop the patented process. The process will also work with Miscanthus giganteus and more than 50 species of perennial grasses. Although arundo and miscanthus can yield between 20 and 30 tons per acre, the major limitation in the widespread adoption of the two biomass crops has been the labor-intensive hand propagation and transplanting required for the sterile grasses.

BG&E has created a joint venture with Hungary-based Pro System Group to adapt the germplasm and micropropagation technology with Pro System Group's Fit-Bio-Reaktor technology. The new micropropagation process involves a germplasm treatment and the growing of thousands of plantlets in vitro that are then matured in Pro System Group's bioreactors for mass row planting. "This technology allows BG&E and [Pro System Group] to plant and grow energy crops in a matter of months," explained company spokesman Keith McDermott. "Previously, this task would have taken years, and was both financially and technologically unfeasible." He pointed out that the European market needs tens of millions of tons of biomass per year to satisfy its demand. In Germany alone, there were 160 biomass power plants operating in 2006 that used mostly woody biomass at an estimated rate of 7 million to 8 million tons per year, according to BG&E. German homeowners have approximately 70,000 wood-fired boilers using approximately 1 million tons of wood per year.

In the United States, BG&E is developing three biomass renewable energy projects in Florida and one in Georgia.