At a time when many other companies are trying to diversify out of biofuels, Chromatin is jumping in.
The company, which designs chromosomes and tools for genetically modifying agricultural crops, has launched an effort to get into biofuels on its own. It has come up with an optimized pathway for sorghum that it will commercialize itself. The company has purchased a sorghum seed company, Sorghum Partners Inc., and Milo Genetics, another sorghum specialist, and will combine all of these technologies into seeds it can sell to biofuel farmers.
Chromatin won't directly sell fuel, but this is one step closer to producing what one might consider a final, tangible product. Right now, Chromatin gets most of its revenue from licensing intellectual property to seed producers.
For biofuel makers, these are the worst of times. Oil prices have come down from their $140-a-barrel levels two years ago and now hover at around $75 a barrel. The surging interest in electric cars has weakened some of their potential opportunity in transportation. Worse, the major oil companies have yet to seriously commit to specific technologies or companies. Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Shell all have alliances for biofuel research, but they aren't touting hundreds-of-millions-of-gallons-a-year production deals just yet.
As a result, most biofuel companies have expanded into green chemicals, jet fuel or food additives. Aurora Biofuels, an algae outfit that sprung from UC Berkeley, is in the midst of repackaging itself as a vendor of tasty omega-3s. Food oils and cosmetic oils, by the way, can sell for tens to hundreds of dollars a gallon, and chemical prices do not fluctuate as spasmodically as gas prices, so these are all sound strategies.
Why sorghum? Philosophers have asked the question for centuries, but it's fairly simple, says CEO Daphne Preuss. With sorghum, you get three kinds of carbohydrates: starch (which can be converted into ethanol and other fuels), sugar, and cellulose, which can be converted to fuel or burned in biomass boilers like these big honkers coming soon to Texas.
"We can make the right product for the right customer," she said.
Preuss dodged the usual question -- how many gallons of oil can you get in a year per acre with sorghum? -- but she said it compares well with other crops.
Added bonuses: sorghum, an annual grass, requires less nitrogen fertilizer and water than other seed crops. It can also be grown on semi-marginal land. In the U.S., sorghum mostly gets fed to farm animals.