Intelligent Energy

How do you solve a problem like next-gen biofuels?

How do you solve a problem like next-gen biofuels?

Posting in Energy

According to a National Research Council report, it might be easier to catch a cloud and pin it down. The report concludes it's unlikely the U.S. will meet next-gen biofuel mandates and questioned the benefits of such a policy.

Next-generation biofuels are often viewed as a transportation fuel panacea. A magic elixir that will wean the U.S. off of foreign oil without sending the economy into the dark ages. Advocates have promised next-gen biofuels will reduce greenhouse emissions and end the use of food crops for fuel.  Now a recent National Research Council report not only raises serious doubts about these often-touted benefits, but said it's unlikely the U.S. will be able to meet its own biofuel production mandates.

In other words, when it comes to solving a problem like next-gen biofuels, it might be easier to catch a cloud and pin it down. Or hold a moonbeam in your hand. More importantly, the National Research Council questions whether the U.S. should even try because the environmental and economic benefits might not be there.

The report, requested by Congress, said it's unlikely the U.S. will meet specific biofuel mandates under the Renewable Fuel Standard by 2022 unless innovative technologies are developed or policies change.

Federal law mandates that by 2022, the consumption volume of renewable fuels hit 36 billion gallons.  Of that, 15 billion gallons must be conventional biofuels -- aka corn-based ethanol -- and 16 billion gallons must be cellulosic biofuels produced from wood, grasses or non-edible plant parts including corn stalks and wheat straw. The remaining amount includes 1 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel fuel and four billion gallons of advanced renewable biofuels other than ethanol from cornstarch and that achieve a lifecycle threshold of at least 50 percent.

The NRC expects the U.S. to meet conventional biofuel and biomass-based diesel fuel production mandates. The problem lies with advanced and cellulosic biofuels. Not a single commercially viable biorefinery exists for converting cellulosic biomass to fuel, the NRC said.

As I recently noted, next-gen biofuels have struggled in part because the process of breaking down plant biomass and converting it into fermentable sugars so it can be refined into fuel is too expensive to be commercially viable. In other words, it can’t compete against corn-based ethanol prices or gasoline, for that matter.

It's why so much research centers on finding a technological breakthrough that will make biofuels cheaper to make.  And why the federal government has shelled out millions of dollars in loan guarantees, loans and grants all aimed either driving down the cost of cellulosic biofuels and/or increasing production.

The NRC notes other difficulties with cellulosic biofuels including its reliance on subsidies to compete with fossil fuels and the need to use more farmland to produce feedstocks like switchgrass and corn stovers. The NRC warned the increased production of advanced biofuels could inadvertently push up food prices by competing with food crops for land. Ironically, this is one problem cellulosic biofuels were supposed to solve.

The solution

The NRC report doesn't offer up any innovative solutions. It suggests carrying out research and development to improve feedstock yield and increasing the conversion yield from biomass to fuels -- something that's already happening, albeit more at a more limited scale than is perhaps necessary.

It does, however, lay out what would tip cellulosic ethanol into a cost-competitive zone: A world characterized by high oil prices, technological breakthroughs and a high implicit or actual carbon price.

Photo: Flickr user jurvetson, CC 2.0

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure