February 27, 2012

On the Horizon: The Future of Biofuels

Patti Truant

Patti Truant

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

For the eleventh entry in our series “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol,” we asked biofuels expert Donna Perla, MPH, senior advisor with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development, for her thoughts on the future of the biofuels industry.

Patti TruantWhat’s new in the world of biofuels right now?  What do you think are the greatest opportunities and challenges right now in moving toward a more bio-based economy?

Donna Perla: I think there are several. One is that the industry has really evolved.  Certainly it started with corn ethanol, but there still is this push for cellulosic ethanol.  Beyond that, there is also a big push for advanced hydrocarbon biofuels—drop-in fuels.  [Drop-in fuels are fuels more similar to gasoline and would be compatible with cars on the road today—they can just be “dropped in” to the gas tank.]

There is also a military push to develop jet biofuels. The Federal Aviation Administration is also really interested. This will create the market pull for developing this fuel type. There was a recent Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DOD) to really accelerate the development of jet fuels for defense. There have been two flights using biofuels and there is hope that federal investment in large-scale pilots will lead to commercialization.

With jet fuels, it’s a little bit different than normal fuels—where there’s a market everywhere. With aviation biofuels, it will be regionalized where you have air travel—near airports and air bases, so regional approaches will make things more cost-effective. It’s kind of exciting—it pushes the envelope on new technologies, new chemical compositions of biofuels, and new public-private partnerships.

Secretary Vilsack of USDA recently testified in Congress about the importance of biofuels to the rural economy. What kind of technological advancements or policies are most needed to advance a bio-based economy?

It’s all about economics, first of all. You need to have production of feedstock at a cost-competitive rate, and when you talk about a cost-competitive rate, that includes the return per acre of cropland, the return per gallon of fuel, and how many BTUs [British Thermal Units, a measure of energy] are in that gallon of fuel. You need all that in terms of designing a promising feedstock—high BTU per acre, high yield per acre on the land. On top of that, you need cost-effective commercial-scale conversion technologies that will also help maintain cost-competitive fuel and other products coming from the biorefineries.

There are other advances needed as well—in the end use of the fuel for example.  The flexibility of cars, and whether they can take more than one kind of fuel, expanded or modified infrastructures to store, deliver, and dispense the product—that’s all part of it.

Another piece of it is how you optimize the land use and the resources to grow the feedstock and be cost-competitive with other higher value uses of that land. What are the tradeoffs with other higher-value crops? How does growing biofuel feedstocks affect other competitive uses of that land?

Also, looking at co-products [of the biofuel production process] is really important.  They really vary based on the process, and it may be that a higher value co-product is what makes the biofuel feasible in the first place. Sometimes the co-product is more valuable than the fuel itself.  There are great economic opportunities to move us towards a bio-based economy through these integrated biorefineries.

What has the government been doing lately to advance biofuels development on a regional basis?

The USDA has definitely taken a regional approach looking at the geography and production capacity.  They are considering climate, soil conditions, existing production infrastructures and capacity, and other factors to help them implement a feasible approach for producing certain feedstocks. The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service has formed five regional biomass centers, each drawing from a national network of agricultural experts and forging public-private partnerships to increase the region’s abilities to produce certain kind of crops.

In addition to that, USDA, under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). has recently awarded funding for coordinated agricultural projects. These projects were designed to forge  partnerships between land grant universities, industry and federal research centers for biofuels research since 2010.

President Obama’s 2013 budget proposal includes over $200 million in support for biofuels development to USDA. Where do you think resources need to be focused when it comes to biofuels?

I think they have a lot of investment in feedstock and conversion technology, and I think they need additional focus on developing valuable co-products. These present  a lot of economic opportunities and are a substantial engine to a bio-based economy.  Also, I think understanding the economic, social, public health and environmental impacts of biofuels are very important.

<< Previous blogpost (No. 10) in the series—Do Farmers Benefit from Biofuels?<<
<< Blogpost No. 9—Biofuels: Innovations Needed<<
<<Blogpost No. 8—The Cellulose Quandary<<
<<Blogpost No. 7—Corn Ethanol: How Much Energy Are We Actually Gaining?<<

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