Agricultural Biofuels: Technology, Sustainability, and Profitability

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The fact that the world consumes about two barrels of oil for every barrel discovered and that worldwide 98% of transportation relies on petroleum-based fuels shows that the transportation sector is responsible for about 25% of the world’s greenhouse gasses. Increasing demands from China and other countries have stretched oil-production capacity and played a significant role in higher prices. Promoters of biofuels, coal and oil should not become mutual enemies. All three will be needed plus natural gas, solar and other new technologies. Breaking the US addiction to oil will require the whole country—farmers, scientists, businesses, and government—working together.

A recent estimate of the hidden cost of oil dependence amounts to about $3 per gallon of liquid fuel excluding multiplier effects. This estimate includes incremental military costs, supply-disruption costs and direct economic costs. The United States uses 21 million barrels of oil a day, i.e. 5% of the world’s population uses 25% of its oil. And the US is borrowing money from its economic competitors to pay for foreign oil, thus subsidizing people whom we are asking our soldiers to fight. The US is also the largest producer of CO2, with transportation accounting for ~33%.

The objective of the 25×’25 Committee is to steer the United States towards producing 25% of its energy from the land by 2025—through biofuels, wind, hydropower and solar technology. A bout 500 organizations have signed on to the 25×’25 vision, including the major farm organizations, auto companies, farm-equipment manufacturers, and conservation and environmental groups. Governors have signed on, as have many state legislatures. Domestically produced biofuels have the potential to provide long-lasting solutions to national security, economic competitiveness and oil-price and supply problems and create jobs, keep dollars in the country and lessen adverse environmental impacts.

The entire biofuel life cycle—all of the issues that are involved with feedstock production, including planting, processing, transportation and storage—should be quantified and compared with the fossil-fuel life cycle. The production of biofuels from cellulosic biomass requires a new industry to be born—many factors have to be put in place ranging from the technical to the political. Most estimates indicate a maximum production of 15–18 billion gallons of ethanol from corn starch with 42 billion gallons from cellulosic sources by 2030.

A comprehensive approach is needed for rapid development of alternative fuels, involving plant breeders, agronomists, bioprocess engineers, biotechnologists and microbiologists. Adoption of new alternative fuels will require the development of adequate infrastructure including vehicle systems, vehicle-refueling facilities, distribution and storage facilities, refineries and conversion facilities.

Over the long term, the United States must displace petroleum—old biomass—with new biomass, with practices that preserve wildlife habitats, soil quality, water quality, maintain or increase farm income, encourage rural development and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Renewable energy from our land is the most socially acceptable, environmentally friendly and economically feasible of all the choices.

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Agricultural biotechnology; biofuels; renewable energy sources; sustainability; butanol; biomass; ethanol; cellulosic ethanol; energy security; technology transfer;


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