California company sees potential in its miscanthus trials

By Lisa Gibson
Posted December 9, 2009, at 1:25 p.m. CST

California-based Mendel Biotechnology Inc. has more than 2,000 varieties of miscanthus under development on several different plots and hopes to have significant plantings for biomass power generation in the next two to four years.

Fifteen research and development plots have been planted across the eastern U.S. and Canada to identify genetics and breeding materials, according to Mendel CEO and President Neal Gutterson, along with nine pilot locations to help understand the different varieties and their yields, as well as the best locations to plant them in order to work with off-take partners. In addition, a pre-commercial demonstration site in southwest Kentucky is helping researchers understand the logistics of harvest, collection and storage. "But also to get farmers interested," Gutterson said. Mendel also has collaborations in Europe, China and Brazil.
Currently, yields are being used mainly for testing, but plots, specifically Kentucky's demo site, have shown great potential for miscanthus as an energy crop. Interest in miscanthus is huge, according to Rasto Ivanic, director of business development, and Mendel is in discussions with several businesses interested in testing the company's crops for conversion to biofuels and power. It's just a matter of a few years before a substantial agreement is in place, he added.

The Kentucky trials were done by a top grower, Gutterson said, and have accomplished yields comparable to a mature switchgrass field. First-year data is very encouraging, he said, and the demo plot will be harvested for the next several years. Crops planted now are clonal offerings, but Mendel has long-term aspirations of moving to a seeded system, which would lower costs, Gutterson said. "We think the costs can come down five- to ten-fold," he said, adding that the seeded products will be truly game-changing.

Mendel is focused on a portfolio of crops, mainly miscanthus, and sees limitations on current offerings that they will address in their own varieties. The company's plants are currently not genetically modified, Ivanic stressed, adding that Mendel is leading an effort to make sure varieties of the crop will not pose issues or threats where they are planted and harvested. "We are extremely conscious about being good stewards of the industry," he said. "We can bring in important traits without having genetic modification," Gutterson added. Desired traits include improved and stabilized yield, improved energy content and maximized growing season and flowering time, he said.

Mendel's clonal offerings are seeing yields in the first year and results look promising, Gutterson said. "We're now seeing progress," he added. The industry still seems a bit sluggish and many questions have yet to be answered, but he is confident that in a couple years the company will have the data and information that will spur financing for miscanthus-based renewable energy projects. "We're very optimistic that this will be a good feedstock," he said.