Campus study shows biofuel demand will more than quadruple in 25 years

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An article published by UC Berkeley researchers suggests that biofuel could account for 30 percent of the demand for liquid transportation fuel by 2037.

The article, “Growing Better Biofuel Crops,” published Sunday, suggests that the current U.S. dependence on fossil fuels is not sustainable, and that this dependence will preclude a habitable environment for future generations.  The article also states that the world’s population is expected to increase by about 50 percent until it stabilizes later this century.

The article indicates that as this happens, many conflicts over land use and agriculture will arise because of pressures on food and energy sources, and the need for reduction of carbon emissions.

The article suggests that biofuels are potentially a key part of the solutions to these mounting issues and that improving the crops that produce biofuels is a way to make this fuel a significant energy source in the U.S.

“Done right, biofuels can help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of transportation fuels by 80 percent or more,” said co-author of the article Heather Youngs, a bioenergy research analyst at the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley.

Chris Somerville, philomathia professor of alternative energy and Energy Biosciences Institute director, co-authored the study with Youngs. He said some types of biofuels that are made from the bodies of plants that are specifically grown for fuel production, called cellulosic fuels, have lower greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels when all parts of the fuel production process are accounted for.

The study suggests that biofuels can be produced from plants that are grown on land that is otherwise unproductive, so they will not take up precious space for agriculture.  Also, biofuels can be produced from non-food plants, as most are now, so that biofuel production will not negatively impact food production.

“We can (also) engineer organisms to better consume and ferment these plant materials, or to produce fuel products other than ethanol, such as butanol,” said Mike Blaisse, a campus graduate student working in chemistry professor Michelle Chang’s lab.

According to the article, most biofuels are currently made from corn and other food plants, which are crops whose production could be improved. Youngs explained that much of the landfill produced in the U.S. is organic material that could be used to produce biofuel.

Anjelica Colliard/Staff

“I believe that the situation will gradually change so that in the future, we will mostly, or only, use inedible plants that are specifically grown for production of fuels from the body of the plants, and that these plants will be grown on land that is not needed for food production or ecosystem services,” Somerville said.

There is a lot of potential for biofuel as a significant energy source for the future, Youngs said.  According to the article, fossil fuels are scarce in Brazil because so much of their fuel is biofuel made from the byproducts of sugar production. The article shows that there are many ways through which biofuel can become a very efficient and dependable resource that can be integrated into current infrastructures.

“My personal hope is that by raising awareness of some of the possibilities to produce biomass for energy in a sustainable way, people will be open to the discussion of how our future energy system should unfold,” Youngs said.