This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research ipsportfolio.
Looking down from 30,000 feet above, imagine seeing: alternating checker-squares of green colored wheat and yellow-flowered camelina fields across eastern Montana; fields with 15-foot-tall energycane plants weaving among stands of longleaf pines growing in the Florida panhandle, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi; tens of thousands of acres of Oklahoma rangeland cleared from invasive eastern red cedar so cattle and bison can once again graze freely; forests across the west freed of dense, diseased, and dead trees that otherwise stand waiting to feed wildfires whipped by dry autumn winds; and even expansive ponds in Hawaii where high-tech algae grow – these scenes and others across rural America will be the places where the feedstocks come from that are used to produce the next generation of biofuels that will fill the tanks of our flex-fuel cars, trucks, tractors, trains, airliners, and even our Navy’s ships and jet fighters.
Many people equate biofuels with ethanol made from corn grain or cellulose. But what isn’t as widely known is there are other kinds of biofuels that have many of the same properties as petroleum fuels, and are not made from corn or other food crops. Just as ethanol can be made from biomass, so can advanced biofuels be made from energycane, switchgrass, and other highly productive grasses, as well as from woody biomass. Using newly custom-designed microbes that feed on cellulose and sugars in plant biomass, scientist are not only developing more efficient ways to produce ethanol, but new ways to produce energy rich liquids such as butanol and diesel as well. By adapting older technologies for producing biofuels, engineers are designing ways to heat biomass until it becomes the energy-rich gas carbon monoxide or a bio-oil similar to crude oil, and then use these to produce diesel and jet fuel. These biofuels – as well as with ones made from plant oils produced by canola, camelina, guayule, and even algae – are drop-in ready to be used in the same engines as their petroleum-based fuel counterparts.
Our nation is giving a remarkable amount of attention to shifting away from petroleum and towards a renewable fuel future. Earlier this month, the White House released a report of the Biofuels Interagency Working Group – Growing America’s Fuel – as part of a broad program to secure America’s energy future and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The report envisions creation of a new agricultural business sector driven by demand for biofuels production and distribution, a sector that does not currently exist. As this new agricultural business sector is built, there will be unprecedented opportunities to combine the best plant biology, engineering, and computational tools to address long-term questions about biofuels, and design the best ways to sustainably produce them. And never before has there been a government-wide commitment focus on efforts to create robust public-private partnerships that invent entirely new biofuel supply chains and accelerate the establishment of a commercial advanced biofuels industry. And to make sure that industry helps to build wealth in rural America.
So, while there are no simple solutions and it will take time to meet all of our transportation needs with renewable fuels – one thing is certain, American farms and forests and rural communities can benefit and play a significant role in seeing to it that the next generation of biofuels are ready to move us to where we need to go – for generations to come.
Senior Advisor for Bioenergy
Office of the Chief Scientist