Viaspace enters collaboration with University of California

By Katie Fletcher | July 16, 2014

Viaspace recently announced that the company has entered into a research collaboration with the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Division. The collaboration will further research on Giant King Grass currently grown in countries all over the world. Within UNCANR, Viaspace is specifically collaborating with the 255 acre Desert Research and Extension Center located in Holtville, California, where the Giant King Grass seedlings were harvested from the Viaspace propagation nursery.

Kevin Schewe, Viaspace chairman, believes the collaboration is a great achievement for the company with multiple potential benefits. “First, this project will add well-regarded and UC-validated data to our Giant King Grass data base and that ever-expanding data base makes our product more valuable and more creditworthy,” Schewe said in a statement.

Other benefits include increased exposure and reputation with local and state governing authorities in California’s large domestic market for green energy, networking with businesses and industries to foster relationships and lastly the propagation nursery in California can demonstrate the strength of the biomass platform and animal feed utility of Giant King Grass to prospective clients.

The objectives of the research are to compare the growth of Giant King Grass using subsurface drip irrigation with flood (furrow) irrigation, compare individual node and whole stalk planting methods, evaluate yields for bioenergy and animal feed applications and evaluate growth of the grass in a very hot, dry climate. Carl Kukkonen, Viaspace CEO, explains the details of the research surrounding the Giant King Grass beginning with irrigation. Drip and flood irrigation are two of the most common forms of irrigation besides a sprinkler. “Drip irrigation is the most expensive to install, but uses the least water and is easiest to manage,” Kukkonen said. “Flood irrigation is the most common form in the world and least expensive.” Flood irrigation is currently being used for the 2,100 acre Giant King Grass plantation in Nicaragua, Kukkonen added.

Giant King Grass is vegetatively propagated from stem cuttings like sugarcane. Whole stalks of Giant King Grass planted end to end are for very high density planting, individual nodes are planted separately, which gives more space for the plants to grow. “On each stalk there are about 20 buds spaced about 7 inches apart,” Kukkonen said. “Each bud, called a node, can be propagated into another plant.”

The tall plants all start from a single node, which at six months range from 16 to 18 feet in height. Sometimes plants are cut before they reach that height. When the plant is cut depends on its application. “If you are going to burn the Giant King Grass in a power plant or to make cellulosic biofuels, you want the plant to be tall and have a lot of biomass, which is achieved at six months old,” Kukkonen said. “However the tall plants are too woody for animals to eat or for anaerobic digestion, so in this case you harvest at about 5 to 7 feet tall every two months.” The shorter grass has higher protein and is more palatable for animals, Kukkonen added.

Viaspace has conducted tests of the grass growth in moderate and hot humid climates using water irrigation to the plants. “The hot, dry climate should be ideal for Giant King Grass, which is a C4 grass that loves heat,” Kukkonen said.

Giant King Grass is already growing in California, Arizona, Hawaii, St. Croix, Nicaragua, Guyana, South Africa, Pakistan, Myanmar and China. “In most of these projects, we have a partner that is the project developer and Viaspace is the feedstock supplier,” Kukkonen said. “The 12 MW project in Nicaragua is being co-developed by Viaspace, so we will be partial owners of the power plant as well as the Giant King Grass feedstock supplier.”

The co-development of the project recently made progress with Viaspace announcing meetings with potential EPC’s, business partners and financial investors for the power plant. “The project will take two years of construction and commissioning, and financial close is expected at the end of this year,” Kukkonen said.

Viaspace has also recently announced that the company has signed a Giant King Grass supply contract with ReSource BioEnergy Inc. to supply Giant King Grass for its bioenergy projects in Jamaica. “Our customer ReSource is planning on initially producing electricity through anaerobic digestion and animal feed,” Kukkonen said. “The project can provide clean electricity for the people, schools, hospitals and industrial development, as well as jobs for farmers and power plant workers.”

At the end of June Viaspace stated that the Tibbar Energy, Giant King Grass fueled, 7 MW biogas power plant on the island of St. Croix was entering its final permitting stage and design. In April Biomass Magazine reported Viaspace’s contract with Emunite Energy Solutions Inc. to provide Giant King Grass planted in Guyana for a proposed pellet mill.  

In the near-term the objectives of Viaspace are with electricity generation, energy pellets and animal feed because that is where the technology is mature and profitable. “We plan to pursue these types of applications initially to establish Giant King Grass plantations that will also be suitable for biofuels, biochemicals and biomaterials,” Kukkonen said.