Jason Barton

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More Advancements in Cellulosic Biofuels

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Government investments in cellulosic biofuels may be paying off.

Not only do these advances move us closer to using grasses and other crops that require less water and fertilizer and compete less with food, it also moves us closer to the advanced biofuels that, unlike ethanol, can be used as drop in replacements for gasoline (read more here).

We need to combine these advancements with further efforts in conservation and efficiency, or we risk converting so much of the Earth’s biomass to serving human uses that we will decrease biodiversity to the extent that we risk further ecological collapse.

This doesn’t just diminish our ability to go camping in pretty places, it also threatens our supply of essential resources such as clean, healthy water and soil.  I like to go camping, but I like eating and drinking healthy food and water even more. They’re really important, and clearing diverse forests and prairies so we can plant crops such as grasses, whether for fuel, food, fiber, or feed, poses risks to water and soil.

Energy Department Announces New Advance in Biofuel Technology

Highlights Opportunity to Reduce America’s Oil Dependence and Create Jobs in Rural America

March 07, 2011

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu today congratulated a team of researchers at the Department’s BioEnergy Science Center who have achieved yet another advance in the drive toward next generation biofuels: using bacteria to convert plant matter directly into isobutanol, which can be burned in regular car engines with a heat value higher than ethanol and similar to gasoline. This research is part of a broad portfolio of work the Department is doing to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and create new economic opportunities for rural America.

[…]

Secretary Chu added that: “America’s oil dependence—which leaves hardworking families at the mercy of global oil markets—won’t be solved overnight. But the remarkable advance of science and biotechnology in the past decade puts us on the precipice of a revolution in biofuels. In fact, biotechnologies, and the biological sciences that provide the underlying foundation, are some of the most rapidly developing areas in science and technology today – and the United States is leading the way. In the coming years, we can expect dramatic breakthroughs that will allow us to produce the clean energy we need right here at home. We need to act aggressively to seize this opportunity and win the future.”

Read the entire article here.

Cellulosic Biofuels–Got gasoline?

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To hear Dr. Regalbuto describe it, you’d think these technologies were all but ready for deployment. They’re not. I can definitely appreciate his forward thinking, as well as him coming to speak to my class at the University of Illinois, but even he will admit that these fuels are a bit farther away than this article describes.

It will indeed be a great day when we can fuel our vehicles on renewable energy sources, but we will also need to accompany that development with vast decreases in the amount of fuel we use. Failing to do so will require HUGE swaths of land dedicated to growing the biomass that serves as feedstocks for these drop-in replacements for gasoline. If present practice holds, these swaths will likely be monoculture in order to maximize the yield per unit of land, and monocultures can be very harmful to the health of soil and water, and potentially to the people who live near these fields and depend on these systems.

It’s a fascinating time to be alive.

John R. Regalbuto

14 August, 2009

Most people think of ethanol as the only liquid biofuel, and that the major advances in biofuels will revolve around enzymatic conversion of cellulosic or woody biomass (including nonfood stems and stalks of corn stover or switch-grass, and wood chips) into simple fermentable sugars (1). However, in just a few years the commercial scale production of liquid hydrocarbons from biomass will be possible. Hydrocarbons can be made (see the figure) from the sugars of woody biomass through microbial fermentation or liquid-phase catalysis, or directly from woody biomass through pyrolysis or gasification (2). Finally, lipids from nonfood crops as well as algae (3) can be converted to hydrocarbons. The resulting hydrocarbon biofuels will be drop-in replacements for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel; will give much higher gas mileage than ethanol; and will work in existing engines and distribution networks.

Read the entire article here.