In bioenergy, size really does matter

12 Sep 2019
Why do we need biofuels?

Why do we need biofuels? Aren’t they bad and have all sorts of detrimental impacts on land-based ecosystems that we should avoid? Perhaps, but we need them for negative emissions technologies such as BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage), where current land-take is estimated at 500M Ha – a target of one center is to double biomass yield thus reducing land take by 50% (from 30 to 15% of current arable crop land).

We need them for liquid fuels that can’t be easily replaced (aviation in particular) and for developing the bioeconomy where plant-based feedstocks are able to not only supply the low-value high-volume feedstocks for energy but also the high-value low-volume sources of important chemicals that currently come from fossil fuels. These needs can only be met by continuing novel research discoveries feeding a pipeline of innovation and commercialization.

A poplar tree trial in Italy to identify superior high yielding and drought tolerant trees
$400M over five years

Think of the USA and you probably visualize a nation with no commitment to the Paris Agreement and denial on the existence of climate change in a fossil-fueled economy of gigantic proportions. Well yes, that’s one view, but be aware that the US has the biggest single commitment to the development of sustainable bioenergy, globally – a long-term commitment funded by the Department of Energy that most recently began over a decade ago, when they invested $30M to sequence the first tree genome – a female poplar tree called Nisqually.

DOE has been unwavering in their efforts as evidenced by the four centers funded in 2017. Current funding for this bioenergy research significantly outstrips the UK bioenergy funding that perhaps equates to around 1% of the effort of the USA and so opportunities for collaboration with the massive US machine should be explored as they have much to offer in a post-brexit world where many research council grants can be twinned with NSF programs.

Bioenergy research is big business in the US and the four funded Bioenergy Research Centers (BRCs)  each receive $15- 25M annually (yes, each year to each center) to tackle some of the most difficult issues around the use of bioenergy development and deployment. From fundamental insights into harnessing the planets microbes, bespoke feedstock crops that have no impact on food production to developing novel fuels for future aviation.

Poplar biomass hardwood cuttings ready for planting

The Four Centres

Each of the four centers has some novel and distinguishing features –

  • The Center for Bioenergy innovation works on poplar trees as a feedstock and has developed world-leading resources to ensure these trees are widely deployed in future.
  • The Joint Bioenergy Institute, running from Berkeley is working on biomass deconstruction, alongside a significant program on Life Cycle Assessments to understand the costs and environmental impacts of bioenergy.
  • Great Lakes Bioenergy research Center and Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation based in Urbana Illinois are making advances is engineering plant lignin for better biofuels and value from this important plant product and using a fast growing grass as a biomass feedstock, respectively.
  • Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation, based in Urbana Illinois, are making advances is engineering plant lignin for better biofuels and value from this important plant product and using a fast growing grass as a biomass feedstock, respectively.

Each center brings together approximately 200 researchers,  doing interdisciplinary work, with molecular biologists, chemists, socio-economic scientists, ecologists, technologist and more – all tackling similar problems but looking for new and novel solutions – fundamentally moving us from an oil-based to a bio-based economy. I was lucky in my role on the Science Advisory Board of the CBI to attend the recent annual meeting to hear about progress on these topics.

The area is moving fast and one of the most insightful talks was given by Steve Csonka, Executive Director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative. Check out RED Rock Biofuels and Fulcrum Bioenergy which are two companies gearing up their production of Sustainable Aviation Fuel for 2020. Fulcrum is using domestic waste as a feedstock in a Fischer-Tropsch process, with several 10-60 million gallon plants planned.

Team work to assess leaf size in bioenergy poplar – a key indicator trait determining yield
Conclusion: Bioenergy research in the US is “buzzing”

Overall –bioenergy research in the US is buzzing – four new centers creating close to 1,000 new scientists, technologists, and wide-ranging experts, many early career researchers – a new generation committed to low carbon fuels. This suggests that commercialization of large-scale bioenergy is coming sooner rather than later ad we should all acknowledge this continued investment by the US government helping to make this happen.