Nav: Home

Cellulosic biofuels can benefit the environment if managed correctly

June 29, 2017

Could cellulosic biofuels - or liquid energy derived from grasses and wood - become a green fuel of the future, providing an environmentally sustainable way of meeting energy needs? In Science, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy-funded Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center say yes, but with a few important caveats.

"The climate benefit of cellulosic biofuels is actually much greater than was originally thought," said Phil Robertson, University Distinguished Professor of Ecosystem Science at Michigan State University and lead author on the study. "But that benefit depends crucially on several different factors, all of which we need to understand to get right."

Although not yet a market force, cellulosic biofuels are routinely factored into future climate mitigation scenarios because of their potential to both displace petroleum use and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Those benefits, however, are complicated by the need for vast amounts of land to produce cellulosic biofuels on a large scale.

"The sustainability question is largely about the impact of using millions of acres of U.S. land to grow biofuel crops," Robertson said. "Can we do that without threatening global food security, diminishing biodiversity, or reducing groundwater supplies? How much more fertilizer would we use? What are the tradeoffs for real climate benefit, and are there synergies we can promote?"

Drawing from ten years of empirical research, Robertson and GLBRC colleagues from MSU, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Maryland identify several emerging principles for managing the complex environmental tradeoffs of cellulosic biofuel.

First, the researchers show how growing native perennial species on marginal lands -land not used for food production because of low fertility or other reasons - avoids competition with food security, and provides the greatest potential for climate mitigation and biodiversity benefits.

Second, crop choice is key. Native perennial species offer superior environmental outcomes to annual crops, but no single crop appears to be ideal for all locations. In fact, in some cases mixed species crops provide superior benefits. Third, nitrogen fertilizer use should be avoided or minimized because of its global warming and other environmental impacts.

According to the researchers, these principles (as well as four more outlined in the paper) are enough to begin guiding sound policy decisions for producing sustainable biofuels. Looking forward, however, the team calls for more research on designing landscapes to provide the optimal suite of energy, climate and environmental benefits. They say that understanding how best to integrate benefits and tradeoffs will be key to the future success of cellulosic biofuels.

"With biofuels, the stakes are high," Robertson said. "But the returns are also high, and if we take key principles into account we can begin shaping the policies and practices that could help make cellulosic biofuels a triple win for the economy, the climate and for environmental sustainability in general."
-end-
Additional GLBRC scientists contributing to this paper include Bradford Barham, Bruce Dale, Stephen Hamilton, Cesar Izaurralde, Randall Jackson, Douglas Landis, Scott Swinton, Kurt Thelen and James Tiedje.

Michigan State University

Related Biofuels Articles:

Cellulosic biofuels can benefit the environment if managed correctly
Could cellulosic biofuels -- or liquid energy derived from grasses and wood -- become a green fuel of the future, providing an environmentally sustainable way of meeting energy needs?
Solving a sweet problem for renewable biofuels and chemicals
Reed Cartwright and Xuan Wang have teamed up to try to break through the innovation bottleneck for the renewable bioproduction of fuels and chemicals.
Making oil from algae -- towards more efficient biofuels
The mechanism behind oil synthesis within microalgae cells has been revealed by a Japanese research team.
WSU study finds people willing to pay more for new biofuels
When it comes to second generation biofuels, Washington State University research shows that consumers are willing to pay a premium of approximately 11 percent over conventional fuel.
'Super yeast' has the power to improve economics of biofuels
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center have found a way to nearly double the efficiency with which a commonly used industrial yeast strain converts plant sugars to biofuel.
Biofuels not as 'green' as many think
Statements about biofuels being carbon neutral should be taken with a grain of salt.
Sustainability criteria for transport biofuels need improvements
In its Renewable Energy Directive, the European Union has set a 10 percent goal for the use of renewable energy in transport by 2020.
Researchers' new advance in quest for second generation biofuels
Scientists at the University of York are part of an international research team that has made a significant step forward in understanding the processes naturally occurring enzymes use to degrade microbe-resistant biomass, a key aim in the development of biofuels.
Biofuels from algae: A budding technology yet to become viable
Despite high expectations and extensive research and investment in the last decade, technological options are still in developing stages and key resources for algal growth are still too onerous for economically viable production of algal biofuels, according to a JRC literature review.
One-stop shop for biofuels
Researchers at the Joint BioEnergy Institute have developed a 'high-gravity' one-pot process for producing ethanol from cellulosic biomass that gives unprecedented yields while minimizing water use and waste disposal.

Related Biofuels Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Moving Forward
When the life you've built slips out of your grasp, you're often told it's best to move on. But is that true? Instead of forgetting the past, TED speakers describe how we can move forward with it. Guests include writers Nora McInerny and Suleika Jaouad, and human rights advocate Lindy Lou Isonhood.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#527 Honey I CRISPR'd the Kids
This week we're coming to you from Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. There, host Bethany Brookshire led a panel of three amazing guests to talk about the promise and perils of CRISPR, and what happens now that CRISPR babies have (maybe?) been born. Featuring science writer Tina Saey, molecular biologist Anne Simon, and bioethicist Alan Regenberg. A Nobel Prize winner argues banning CRISPR babies won’t work Geneticists push for a 5-year global ban on gene-edited babies A CRISPR spin-off causes unintended typos in DNA News of the first gene-edited babies ignited a firestorm The researcher who created CRISPR twins defends...