Writing in the journal Science, a group of scientists from the UK and the USA said that using biomass rather than oil or coal to produce fuels and chemicals could play an essential role in reducing the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.
The scientists from Imperial College London, Georgia Tech and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have evaluated the scientific and technological potential of a future based on biomass. Their conclusions form the basis of a strategic alliance between the three institutions, the AtlantIC Alliance.
The paper in Science describes the scientific challenges of creating a facility to process all the components of biomass. Such a facility would make a range of fuels, foods, chemicals, animal feeds, materials, heat and power in proportions that would give maximum value with minimum waste.
The scientists believe that efficient refining of biomass will be vital for producing renewable products with reduced carbon emissions. Biofuels and biomaterials are derived from plants which take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. Their net contribution to the addition of greenhouse gases can be very small if minimal non-renewable energy is used when processing them into useful material or energy products.
We’re looking at a future for biomass where we use the entire plant and produce a range of different materials from it.
Biomass has a completely different molecular structure compared with hydrocarbons from oil. That means we’ll need to develop new techniques so that we can transform plant material into everything from specialty, high value products such as perfumes and plastics to higher volume products such as fuels.—Dr. Charlotte Williams, Imperial College
Imperial hopes that the partnership with Georgia Tech and Oak Ridge will combine their complementary areas of expertise and examine the critical issues from alternative angles. The project has been given a major boost by the award of a UK Office of Science and Technology grant to develop the alliance, backed up by internal funding from each of the partners.
An editorial in the same issue of Science by Steven Koonin, chief scientist for BP (earlier post), calls for a global scientific focus on biofuels.
Credible studies show that with plausible technology developments, biofuels could supply some 30% of global demand in an environmentally responsible manner without affecting food production. To realize that goal, so-called advanced biofuels must be developed from dedicated energy crops, separately and distinctly from food. This is a multidisciplinary task in which biologists, agronomists, chemical engineers, fuel specialists, and social scientists must work to integrate and optimize several currently disjoint activities.
There are major technological challenges in realizing these goals. Genetic improvement of energy crops such as switchgrass, poplar, and jatropha has barely begun. It will be important to increase the yield and environmental range of energy crops while reducing agricultural inputs. Plant development, chemical composition, tolerance of biotic and abiotic stresses, and nutrient requirements are important traits to be manipulated. The combination of modern breeding and transgenic techniques should result in achievements greater than those of the Green Revolution in food crops, and in far less time.
[...]There is substantial technology “headroom” for advanced biofuels to enhance energy security, reduce emissions, and provide economical transport. It exists largely because the world’s scientific and engineering skills have not yet been focused coherently on the challenges involved. It is now time to do that through a coordination of government, university, and industrial R&D efforts, facilitated by responsible public policies. In the jargon of the petroleum industry, the “size of the prize” is too large to ignore.—Steven Koonin
“The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials”; Arthur J. Ragauskas, Charlotte K. Williams, Brian H. Davison, George Britovsek, John Cairney, Charles A. Eckert, William J. Frederick, Jr., Jason P. Hallett, David J. Leak, Charles L. Liotta, Jonathan R. Mielenz, Richard Murphy, Richard Templer, Timothy Tschaplinski; Science 27 January 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5760, pp. 484–489; DOI: 10.1126/science.1114736
“Getting Serious About Biofuels”; Steven Koonin; Science 27 January 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5760, p. 435; DOI:10.1126/science.1124886