Committed to the Next Generation of Biofuels

By Bill Eby | July 08, 2008
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 Administration that U.S. energy consumption will grow nearly 20 percent by 2030. Global energy consumption, says the EIA, is expected to increase nearly 60 percent by 2030.

Authorities in the field also say that meeting those pressing demands for energy will require a wide array of resources. "I don't think we should assume there is a perfect technology," says Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California at Berkeley. "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, say researchers. A University of Tennessee study commissioned by the 25x'25 Alliance concluded that the United States has adequate land resources to secure 25 percent 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 Tennessee 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 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, Dale says. 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 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 past 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.

Our Generation's ‘Moon Shot'
The effort to make the next generation of biofuels cost competitive "is our generation's moon shot," says UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. Significant private investment is underway in developing cellulosic ethanol. For example, 25x'25 Alliance member General Motors 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 flexible-fuel vehicles. "We are very excited about what this breakthrough will mean to the viability of biofuels and, more importantly, to our ability to reduce dependence on petroleum," GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner said.

On another front, petroleum giant British Petroleum 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.

Researchers have "embarked on a commitment to develop new solutions to global energy needs through the deployment of new technologies based on advances in knowledge about biological processes," says Chris Somerville, Earth Biosciences Institute director and a plant biochemist at UC Berkeley. "The enormous progress in understanding basic biological processes achieved during the past several decades has not previously been brought to bear in the energy sector, so we believe that there may be fundamentally new opportunities to reduce the environmental impacts of energy production and use."

In the public sector, the U.S. DOE 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.

Time to Act is Now
Predictions vary as to when the next generation of biofuels will become viable. However, one firm, KL Process Design, earlier this year brought on line 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. It uses a proprietary enzymatic method to break down wood and waste materials, such as cardboard and paper.

Meanwhile, Range Fuels is racing to build the first large-scale commercial cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States. Phase 1 of the 100 MMgy plant in Treutlen County, Ga., is expected to be completed in 2009 and have an initial capacity of 20 MMgy, 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 percent more energy than that required to grow, harvest and turn it into cellulosic ethanol. In addition, say Ohio State researchers, conservation tillage and other agriculture and forestry residue management techniques used to produce biofuel feedstocks can provide a constant buildup of soil organic carbon—practices on croplands, grazing lands and woodlands that can lead to the sequestration of nearly 600 million metric tons of carbon, or the equivalent of approximately 33 percent of total U.S. emissions.

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."

Bill Eby is with the 25x'25 Alliance. Reach him at beby@25x25.org or (512) 980-8990.