UC researchers discover amount of biofuel needed to match price with gasoline

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UC researchers published a study March 27 that found the exact amount of biofuel needed to match price with and potentially replace petroleum-based gasoline and other fuel sources, which could have broad environmental consequences.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the study was conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, or JBEI, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. According to JBEI postdoctoral researcher Minliang Yang, the study investigated how biofuels gathered in a lab or under natural conditions could help make biorefineries more economically friendly.

“With the development of plant metabolic engineering, plants have the potential to be used to produce high-value byproducts,” Yang said in an email. “However, no systematic analysis has been devoted to quantifying its impact on biofuel economics.”

To conduct the study, the team first gathered data on biofuels that were already well-explored but could be effectively produced by plants. With the data collected, it then ran a simulation of the extraction of these biofuels in an ethanol biorefinery.

Yang noted, however, that the results of the study could also guide future plant engineers in the field, but some still call for researchers to remain cautious.

“The vision of JBEI is that bioenergy crops can be converted into economically-viable, carbon-neutral, biofuels and renewable chemicals currently derived from petroleum, and many other bioproducts that cannot be efficiently produced from petroleum,” said JBEI chief science and technology officer Blake Simmons in an email.

Simmons added that the researchers found that a major source of advanced biofuels can be nonconsumable bioenergy crops. According to the study, these crops could potentially replace petroleum-based gasoline in the fuel market and consequently decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

According to a Berkeley Lab press release, while biofuels seem feasible for achieving cost parity with petroleum, the market for such a product faces restrictions, especially in size and scale.

“The issue of cost parity between biofuels and petroleum is not as simple as dollars and sense,” said Berkeley Energy and Resources Group chair Dan Kammen in an email.

Kammen added that the challenge for cost parity between biofuels and petroleum is two-fold — making biofuels and gasoline or diesel cost-equivalent and making sure that respective penalties are followed.

According to Kammen, the land needed to make biofuel must be acknowledged. He added that much like there is a carbon price set for gasoline sold in California, there are penalties for the land used when making biofuel.

“This vision of the bioenergy enterprise will only be possible when we have sustainable bioenergy crops, advanced biorefinery technologies that are capable of converting nearly all of the carbon in bioenergy crops into biofuels as possible, and a vast array of bioproducts that will make biorefineries economically viable and scalable,” Simmons said in the email.

Contact Tarunika Kapoor at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tkapoor_dc.