Resetting the Conversation on Biofuels

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[by Daniel L. Sanchez, ERG Ph.D. Candidate] 

We’re all familiar with the drawbacks of food-based (“1st generation”) biofuels—food vs. fuel, fertilizer and water usage, low energy payback, and nutrient pollution. But this summer, a group of experts from across the U.S. gathered in Iowa to discuss the formation of a new, and advanced, biofuel industry. These biofuels—termed cellulosic or “2nd generation”—have the potential to reduce pollution and oil usage in transportation, with far lower impacts on agricultural markets and the environment.

The STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Row-crops Integrated with Prairie Strips) project will reduce the environmental impact of corn and soybean production. The group visited a trial site for this project.

Iowa is the center of food-based biofuels—particularly ethanol derived from corn and soy biodiesel—but is poised to become a leader in advanced biofuels. This new industry converts more of the plant, termed “lignocellulosic biomass,” to fuel. The advanced biofuels industry is poised to make hundreds of millions of gallons of cellulosic ethanol this year, satisfying and ever-growing demand for clean and domestically-sourced fuel.

Dupont’s Nevada facility will produce 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol each year from corn stover (stalks, leaves, and cobs), a byproduct of corn production.

The group, convened by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Great Plains Institute, toured two commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facilities, and heard from several experts from Iowa State University about advanced in biofuel production, conversion, and environmental sustainability. The facilities, POET-DSM’s Project Liberty in Emmetsburg, IA, and Dupont’s Nevada Site in Nevada, IA, are part of a fleet of homegrown fuel producers across the U.S. Engineers and managers from both facilities spoke to the group about advances in biofuel logistics that can form the foundation for more commercial production. Notably, both facilities we toured were “bolt-on” facilities that were co-located with existing corn ethanol plants.

Producing biofuels requires complex logistics and planning. Here, bales of corn stover await transport to the Dupont Nevada facility.

At Iowa State University, we heard from several leading academics about next-generation biofuel production and conversion technologies. Dr. Robert Brown is exploring flexible biofuel and electricity production processes, such as gasification and pyrolysis. Dr. Emily Heaton is leading field trials of fast-growing, low-input grasses such as miscanthus for efficient biomass growth, including growth on marginal or degraded lands. Dr. Matthew Helmers is exploring the integration of perennial crops into traditional agricultural systems to reduce erosion and nutrient pollution. These developments and others will form the foundation of a sustainable biofuels industry.

The group left Iowa convinced that advanced biofuels can play a large part in reducing oil consumption and global warming pollution in the United States, and around the world.

Iowa State University is pioneering advanced conversion technologies, such as gasification and pyrolysis.

Note: The views expressed here belong solely to the author of each entry and are not representative of the position of the Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley.

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