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Transitioning the Future For Biofuels

Much of the current discussion surrounding biofuels emanates from the current production of ethanol from corn. What’s missing from the discussion is what’s coming in the future development of biofuels

Much of the current discussion surrounding biofuels emanates from the current production of ethanol from corn. What’s missing from the discussion is what’s coming in the future development of biofuels – and there is a vast array on the horizon.

Scientists and researchers say renewable forms of energy can help give America a new energy future that is cleaner, improves national security, strengthens the economy and contributes positively to the quality of life for all.

Contributing to the urgency of developing this new energy future is the prediction from the Energy Information Agency that U.S. energy consumption will grow nearly 20% by 2030. Global energy consumption, says the EIA, is expected to grow nearly 60% by 2030.

To meet those pressing energy demands, Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, says, “What we need is a basket of every conceivable technology,” including wind energy, geothermal, solar power and biofuels.

Liquid fuels derived from a wide variety of plant feedstocks make up a key component of a new energy future, researchers say. A University of Tennessee study commissioned by 25x'25 concluded that the United States has adequate land resources to secure 25% of its energy needs from renewable sources by the year 2025 without compromising the ability of the agricultural and forestry sectors to reliably produce safe and abundant food, feed and fiber at reasonable prices.

Specifically, the UTenn study says production and conversion into energy of land-based feedstocks from America’s fields, farms and forests, including cellulosic ethanol after it becomes commercially viable, have the potential to decrease gasoline consumption by nearly 60 billion gallons in 2025, while the production of energy from biomass and wind sources will offset the growing demand for natural gas and coal-generated electricity.

Additionally, developing these land-based energy resources will generate an additional $700 billion in economic activity annually, and create 5.1 million jobs in 2025, most of that in rural areas.

Biofuels in Transition
The current use of sustainably produced biofuels is aiding a growing transition to cleaner and more dependable energy solutions to meet the ever-growing demand for electricity and transportation fuels. Bruce Dale, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, says that “by any measure, ethanol is better for the planet than gasoline-and it is getting better all the time. Today’s ethanol made from corn is priming the market for the coming generation of alcohol fuels that will also be made from wood chips, urban waste and other feedstocks, not just agricultural crops.”

Looking to the future, it will be non-grain crops and materials now considered waste that will become the primary feedstocks for biofuel production, says Dale.

Ongoing and growing research is optimizing cellulosic feedstocks, including energy crops such as switchgrass, hybrid poplars and other prairie grasses, and residues such as corn stalks, wheat straw, forest trimmings, sawdust, wood chips, yard waste, municipal solid waste and even animal wastes.

Ethanol can be made from cellulose much as it is today from corn - once the very tightly bound sugars in the plant fiber are broken down by enzymes. Thanks to biotechnology, the cost of these enzymes is dropping rapidly, down 30-fold in the last five years - to 10-18 cents per gallon of ethanol produced. However, that cost “has to be reduced even more to make it a viable technology,” says Joel Cherry, senior director of bioenergy technology at Novozymes, a company that develops enzymes for industrial solutions.

And that effort to make the next generator of biofuels cost competitive “is our generation’s moon shot,” says UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. There is significant private investment underway in developing cellulosic ethanol. For example, 25x'25 Alliance member GM is partnering with two technology firms with proprietary cellulosic conversion processes. The Big 3 automaker believes the technologies will ultimately expand the market for GM flex-fuel vehicles.

On another front, petroleum giant BP has committed $500 million over 10 years to the consortium with UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the University of Illinois that created the Energy Biosciences Institute to research the application of biological sciences to transportation.

In the public sector, the U.S. Department of Energy over the past year said it is investing $1 billion in biofuels research and development, including efforts to develop improved enzymes for breaking down cellulosic biomass material into sugars that can then be fermented into ethanol. The department also said it is investing $114 million in small-scale cellulosic refineries, $405 million in bioenergy centers and $385 million in commercial-scale cellulosic refineries. The DOE says cellulosic ethanol can be produced in every region of the country using locally grown materials, while producing a fuel that creates less greenhouse gases than corn-based ethanol.

Predictions as to when the next generation of biofuels become viable vary. However, one firm, KL Process Design, earlier this year brought online what the company calls the first small-scale, waste-wood commercial ethanol facility operating in the United States. Located in Wyoming, the plant is the result of six years of development efforts between the firm and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and used a proprietary enzymatic method to break down wood and waste materials, such as cardboard and paper.

Meanwhile, Range Fuels, is racing to become build the first large-scale commercial cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States. Phase 1 of the 100-million-gallon-per-year plant in Treutlen County, GA, is expected to be completed next year and have an initial capacity of 20 million gallons, using wood as a feedstock.

Scientists say that produced the right way, biofuels provide a much-needed and environmentally sound alternative to petroleum fuels. University of Nebraska researchers say a five-year study shows switchgrass can produce 540% more energy than that required to grow, harvest and turn it into cellulosic ethanol.

In considering the role biofuels will play in America's energy future, researchers and advocates say that the current corn ethanol platform is the foundation for a second generation of viable and affordable biofuels that will provide significant economic and environmental returns.

“But we need to move very quickly,” says Dr. Richard Flavell, chief scientific officer with Ceres Inc., an energy crop company. “Given the commercialization pressures, improved feedstocks must be in the hands of the industrial sector rapidly.” Flavell adds: “We know what to do and how, in principle. We simply need to do it.”