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Study: Viable, Sustainable Biofuel Production Can Reduce US Petroleum Dependence

An in-depth study by Sandia National Laboratories and General Motors Corp. has found that plant and forestry waste and dedicated energy crops could sustainably replace nearly a third of gasoline use by 2030.

The "90-Billion Gallon Biofuel Deployment Study" was commissioned to assess whether and how a large volume of cellulosic biofuel could be sustainably produced, assuming technical and scientific progress continues at expected rates. The study was conducted over a period of nine months.

Researchers assessed the feasibility, implications, limitations and enablers of annually producing 90 billion gallons of ethanol - sufficient to replace more than 60 billion of the estimated 180 billion gallons of gasoline expected to be used annually by 2030. Ninety billion gallons a year exceeds the U.S. Department of Energy's goal for ethanol production established in 2006.

The "90 Billion Gallon Study" assumes 75 billion gallons would be ethanol made from nonfood cellulosic feedstocks and 15 billion gallons from corn-based ethanol. The study examined four sources of biofuels: agricultural residue, such as corn stover and wheat straw; forest residue; dedicated energy crops, including switchgrass; and short rotation woody crops, such as willow and poplar trees. It examines the costs of producing, harvesting, storing and transporting these sources to newly built biorefineries.

Key Findings

Using a newly developed tool known as the Biofuels Deployment Model, or BDM, Sandia researchers determined that 21 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol could be produced per year by 2022 without displacing current crops. The Renewable Fuels Standard, part of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, calls for ramping up biofuels production to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022.

The 90 Billion Gallon Study, which focused only on starch-based and cellulosic ethanol, found that an increase to 90 billion gallons of ethanol could be sustainably achieved by 2030 within real-world economic and environmental parameters.

In addition to those key findings, the study also pointed out that continued support of R&D and initial commercialization is critical because sustained technological progress and commercial validation is a prerequisite to affordably producing the large volumes of ethanol considered in this study. Researchers noted that policy incentives, such as a federal cap and trade program, carbon taxes, excise tax credits and loan guarantees for cellulosic biofuels, are important to mitigate the risk of oil market volatility.

Interestingly according to the study, the domestic investment for biofuels production is projected to be virtually the same as the investment required to sustain long-term domestic petroleum production.

In terms of cost competitiveness, the study found that cellulosic biofuels could compete without incentives with oil priced at US $90 per barrel, assuming a reduction in total costs as advanced biofuels technologies mature.

Finally, large-scale cellulosic biofuel production could be achieved at or below current water consumption levels of petroleum fuels from on-shore oil production and refining.

The industrial processes by which nonfood forms of biomass are converted into sugars suitable for production of biofuels were a focus of the study.

Sandia's analysis also included land use, water availability, energy used to produce cellulosic biomass, transportation of feedstocks and other potential leverage points for the development and use of cellulosic biofuels. In conducting its research, Sandia utilized models that examined current and future technologies for development of ethanol.

Future enhancements to Sandia's BDM are planned, contingent on additional partnerships. Such improvements to the current software tool, says Sandia business development associate Carrie Burchard, would provide an even more comprehensive systems understanding of the biofuels industry.

Sandia enjoys a longstanding relationship with all the major U.S. automakers and has worked previously with GM on a variety of automotive research activities. Sandia also plays a major role in the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) and several other transportation energy and biofuels projects.

Bob Carling leads Sandia's Transportation Energy Center. He received his PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Michigan in 1975 and joined Sandia National Laboratories in 1976 as a Member of the Technical Staff. In related research being performed at the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, scientists are proving that locally-grown and produced biofuels might offer gains in sustainability.


In related research being performed at the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, scientists are proving that locally-grown and produced biofuels might offer gains in sustainability.

The researchers are using field work and computer simulations — including weather and soil information and many other production and economic factors — in Michigan and Wisconsin to understand the basics of getting home-grown energy from the field to consumers. Preliminary results suggest that incorporating native, perennial plants during biofuels production reduces emissions of greenhouse gases, improves water quality and enhances biodiversity.

"If we can make biofuels sustainable in the Great Lakes region, then we can apply the same methods to make biofuel industries work in other regions," said César Izaurralde of the Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Md. a collaboration between the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., and the University of Maryland.

They study is looking at cellulosic biofuel production from a range of herbaceous and woody species, including native prairie grasses.

How well these other biofuels will perform against greenhouse gas accumulation depends on the feedstock, how they're grown, how the plant is converted to useful liquids and where the industry is based. Something as simple as whether the crop needs to be planted every year or takes root can contribute to whether it's an advantage over fossil fuels.

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