Toyota introduces other members of the Prius family; mid-size and compact
ABB invests $10M in ECOtality

Study finds that biofuel crops grown on marginal lands could produce up to half of world’s current liquid fuel consumption without impacting crops

Maps of land available for bioenergy production under one of the scenario 4 in US, Europe, China, India, South America, and Africa. Credit: ACS, Cai et al. Click to enlarge.

Using detailed land analysis, University of Illinois researchers have found that biofuel crops cultivated on available land could produce between 26-55% of the world’s current fuel consumption without affecting the use of land with regular productivity for conventional crops and without affecting the current pasture land.

Published in the ACS journal Environmental Science and Technology, the study led by civil and environmental engineering professor Ximing Cai identified land around the globe available to produce grass crops for biofuels, with minimal impact on agriculture or the environment.

Under any of the projections, Africa has more than one third, and Africa and South America have more than half of the total land available for biofuel production. Thus, the locations of biofuel production potential and demand are not consistent, given that larger fuel demands exist in the US, Europe, China, and India. The transportation of this fuel between continents will cause additional energy consumption.

—Cai et al.

Many studies on biofuel crop viability focus on biomass yield, or how productive a crop can be regionally. There has been relatively little research on land availability, one of the key constraints of biofuel development. Of special concern is whether the world could even produce enough biofuel to meet demand without compromising food production.

The questions we’re trying to address are, what kind of land could be used for biofuel crops? If we have land, where is it, and what is the current land cover?

—Ximing Cai

Cai’s team assessed land availability from a physical perspective—focusing on soil properties, soil quality, land slope, and regional climate. The researchers collected data on soil, topography, climate and current land use from some of the best data sources available, including remote sensing maps.

The critical concept of the Illinois study was that only marginal land would be considered for biofuel crops. Marginal land refers to land with low inherent productivity, that has been abandoned or degraded, or is of low quality for agricultural uses. In focusing on marginal land, the researchers rule out current crop land, pasture land, and forests. They also assume that any biofuel crops would be watered by rainfall and not irrigation, so no water would have to be diverted from agricultural land.

Using fuzzy logic modeling, the researchers considered multiple scenarios for land availability. First, they considered only idle land and vegetation land with marginal productivity; for the second scenario, they added degraded or low-quality cropland. For the second scenario, they estimated 702 million hectares of land available for second-generation biofuel crops, such as switchgrass or miscanthus.

The researchers then included marginal grassland. A class of biofuel crops called low-impact high-diversity (LIHD) perennial grasses could produce bioenergy while maintaining grassland. While they have a lower ethanol yield than grasses such as miscanthus or switchgrass, LIHD grasses have minimal environmental impact and are similar to grassland’s natural land cover.

Adding LIHD crops grown on marginal grassland to the marginal cropland estimate from earlier scenarios nearly doubled the estimated land area to 1,107 million hectares globally, even after subtracting possible pasture land —an area that would produce 26 to 56% of the world’s current liquid fuel consumption. Next, the team plans to study the possible effect of climate change on land use and availability.

It should be noted that not all the estimated land, particularly abandoned or degraded cropland, can be used for bioenergy production. Furthermore, trade-offs may exist between the present environmental and ecological value of MAL and the potential value for biofuel production...

The final land availability will be affected by not only the physical feasibility factors described above but also global energy and food markets, technological innovations, social and institutional adaptations and accommodations, engineering infrastructural support, and resources availability (e.g., water for refinery industry). Nevertheless, the MAL land maps generated in this study can be used as a base to consider these conditions for further exploration of land available for biofuel production; the estimates can also be integrated with research efforts in biology and agronomy to help identify productive plant species, genetics, and create sustainable crop techniques.

The challenges for the world are to identify the most highly productive plant species that can be grown on the various types of marginal or abandoned lands and to develop innovative land use systems specifically designed for energy crops that have high energy productivity and meanwhile support species diversity and community development.

—Cai et al.

The Energy Biosciences Institute at U. of I. and the National Science Foundation supported the study.


  • Ximing Cai, Xiao Zhang, Dingbao Wang (2011) Land Availability for Biofuel Production, Environmental Science & Technology 45 (1), 334-339 doi: 10.1021/es103338e



Obama & the UAW are betting on electrification for the future of transportation.


IMO, this study is optimistic at best. One question they fail to answer is what proportion of the produced fuel would be necessary in order to transport said fuel to market. The great thing about conventional oil reservoirs, beyond their low energy costs for extraction, are their low energy costs for transportation.


The idea has potential but access (i.e. no access) to most of those marginal lands may limit potential use or production to less than 25% and/or increase production/delivery cost by 100% or more in many places.

Cellulosic feed stock producers will have a normal tendency to plant grass on closer more accessible food producing lands and nobody will be able to police that.

Coal, NG/SG may be more promising feed stocks.


I'm with you, a total non-starter of an idea. We have 300 yrs. worth of coal, and 100 yrs. worth of NG. I think within that space of time we might just come up with something to replace fossil fuels. As opposed to digging up half the earth and destroying many species in the process.



Most land is marginal because a lack of water.
For instance, they say Jatropha can grow in arid regions, which it can, but if you want worthwhile yields, you need to supply loads of water, and then you start competing with food crops.


The suggestion here is that biofuels can and will play a pivotal role in the electrification of transport. But it will be a TEMPORARY role. Not one that diverts energy use to a liquid biofuel on a permanent basis.

Marginal lands can and should be planted for biofuels. And could not the $$BILLIONS spent on deep water drilling and exploration be better spent growing food AND fuel?? Isn't it better to produce and ship and consume renewable biofuels at a fraction of the cost of petroleum - and SIMULTANEOUSLY grow food crops - possibly side by side??

The challenge is to demonstrate to oilcos and entrepreneurs they can make money with biofuels. They can substitute biofuel development and production on marginal land for non-renewable deep water oil. But only until full electrification takes hold.

Henry Gibson

Ethanol is a food!!! It also can be converted into a less human damaging food, but many people right now get a large part of their daily calories from ethanol.

Any plant material can be converted into edible materials by either natural or other processes. Just remember cows, goats and mushrooms.

Speculation and the mandates and subsidies for corn ethanol have caused massive increases in the price of corn and sugar.

Someone could do a study and find out how many lives were shortened by the more expensive foods in the US alone. People who have limited money for food also have very limited money for medical care and no money for medical care at all frequently when food becomes more expensive. To modify a phrase by W.J. Brian; How many people will we "crucify on a cross of" carbon.

I will personally light the fire that burns up the last redwood tree in the US to honor the people who mistakenly believe that bio-fuels can create enough cheap fuel for the US cars homes and industries.

Fuel can be made from coal a lot cheaper than from any crop. And crops in the form of large fast growing trees can then instead be stored in salt caverns, when finally cut, for eternities to achieve more carbon reduction than could be done by making liquid fuel from crops.

No renewable fuel has ever been produced as they always have other energy inputs. ..HG..


Why must the gloomers always see the world in extremes?? Of COURSE biofuels cannot "create enough cheap fuel for the US cars homes and industries."

NO ONE SUGGESTS THEY CAN!!! Temporary. Transitional. Short term. Interim phase. These are the terms referring to the use of biofuels meant to provide renewable liquid light transport fuel to replace destructive, addictive fossil fuel.


Does this take into account the potential of biomass sources such as algae or seaweed, or on the other side of the coin the potential value of biomass for home heating etc - there are a lot of variables.

Are we not also forgetting the potential to abstract and convert CO2 to hydrocarbons which could add to the liquid fuel mix, significantly.

Should we also realise that putting eggs in a single basket (i.e. biofuels vs electric vs unconventional syntheic fuels from gas and coal) is also dangerous because of competing ideologies.

Plus, we don't really understand the full potential and limitations of electric vehicles yet but also the hurdles of providing a recharging infrastructure. The same goes for advanced biofuels and other alternative liquid fuel sourcing and production.

At the moment technology only places electric vehicles directly in competition with other short range and more sustainable modes of transport (bike, bus, tram etc). Biodiesel at least has the potential to take a car 1,000 miles or much more on a full tank, but of course there are issues that this study highlights.

A key message is - both electric and biofuels can complement each other when you see through all the ideological debating on the 'this' or 'that'. It needs to be all.


There's a lot to be said for energy/fuel diversity as long as we do not use essential food stocks to feed our addiction for large inefficient vehicles.

One of the best sustainable solution is to electrify most of the ground vehicles. Heavy truck loads could go on e-trains and transfered on e-truck at each ends etc. Large commercial airplanes is another challenging task. A new propulsion system may be required. Smaller planes will be electrified to the delight of people living close to those airports.

Producing much more clean sustainable electricity is somewhat challenging but not at all impossible. Solar energy can supply 1000x+ the world energy needs. Nuclear can also do a very good job. Wind will be around for as long as we are. Less than 50% of the world Hydro potential has been harnessed. The world will never be short of electricity, just short of will to harness it.


The world will never be short of electricity, just short of will to harness it.

Well said.


"They also assume that any biofuel crops would be watered by rainfall and not irrigation, so no water would have to be diverted from agricultural land." (from the upper link)

When you read how they did the study, you might come away with the impression that they made some conservative assumptions. Imagine Africa and South America growing fuel crops and tankers full of alternative fuels going to industrialized countries. There would still be trade and cash flows but to countries that need it and not those that already have much more than they need.


In the definition of the researchers 'marginal land' is defined as land of low agricultural value. I.E. little economic value. Another name for this type of land is 'nature'. This is quite shocking in 2010. Is is really wise to destroy even more nature than we already have destroyed?


"A class of biofuel crops called low-impact high-diversity (LIHD) perennial grasses could produce bioenergy while maintaining grassland."

They are not destroying grassland, just mowing it.


I like the idea of growing a mix of perennial grasses together, you could water them with rainwater or greywater. Then you have the choice to turn them into charcoal, biomethane or a liquid fuel.

Just burning biomass in a steam cycle power station and using the electricity to power a PHEV is a better idea

Although TBH large scale use of biomass is probably not a very good idea for the rest of the ecosystem


From the stone age to the industrial revolution, people living in caves and mud huts have - and still do - burn wood, dung and anything else they can get their hands on.
There is no particular reason not to return to this method and with agw and climate change it may well be a neccesary intermediate course in the evolution of life and human survival on the planet.

I'm referring to the caves and mud huts of cousrse not the possible sustainable utilization of biomass from marginal lands as that has been disproved historically and would unlikely be able to stack up economically for any volume or meet any real demand without high risks of land degradation.
Could still be used for heating our caves and mud huts though.


I'm glad Scott is on here to set people straight. This study might be useful in the developing world where investment capital and technology are not easy to find, but the study is pointless in the developed world (unless you want to grow your own fuel). Algae bioreactors (and other types) have higher yields than biomass crops. The US can produce enough fuel to power its own transportation sector, and we could probably power our entire economy if we were so inclined. Best thing about bioreactors is that you can feed them salt water from the oceans and CO2 from power plants. No fresh water, fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals are really necessary.

It can be extraordinarily cheap as well. I haven't looked into it recently, but last I checked, major biofuels providers were quoting prices around $1 for a finished gallon of product. Brazil is already trying to bring cheap biofuels to the US, but I believe we've been blocking them to protect the current corn ethanol industry.

The problem with bioethanol is distribution. The problem with many bio-lipids like algal bio-diesel is refinement. The production is not a problem. Getting ethanol into gasoline stations owned or franchised by major oil companies is quite difficult.


"Getting ethanol into gasoline stations owned or franchised by major oil companies is quite difficult."

True. Until oilcos see the wisdom in establishing another product line of non-fossil fuels. They apparently see the potential for hydrogen since most oilcos are developing some kind of H2 program.

Alternative distribution points could be FFV auto dealerships, and single E85 pump installs next to charge points at convenience and fast food outlets. So you plug in your PHEV and fill the tank with E85/biodiesel.


If anhydrous ethanol cost $1/gallon, E85 would be sold out everywhere it was offered. This is emphatically NOT the case, and I wonder who phoenix1 is listening to.


The cost to make ethanol is MOST definitely higher than $1 per gallon. Just the cost of the corn grain as the input feed stock makes it over $2 per gallon from the get go.


Looks like Engineer-Poet and SJC need to read up on the latest ethanol and biobutanol production facilities. First, corn is not required to make either biobutanol or ethanol. Second, ethanol and biobutanol are not ubiquitous b/c we don't have the infrastructure to produce the equivalent of 134B gallons of gasoline.

In Brazil they make sugarcane ethanol. It's cheap. Flex fuel vehicles are common, and the United States has placed large import tariffs on Brazilian ethanol to keep it out of our country.

You should really read up on these things from time to time.


Assertions without evidence. If you think we don't do enough reading, provide some; that's what links are for.


phoenix1, you seem like a troll that just likes to stir up controversy. Either put up or shut up, post links or get off this site.


One of the world's biggest countries and biggest economies has a biofuels-based transportation system. The sources are everywhere including numerous Wikipedia pages dedicated to the Brazilian ethanol marketplace.

Furthermore, there have been a glut of press releases and announcements about upcoming biofuels projects as big companies like Shell, Valero, 3M, and DuPont have teamed up with algae ethanol and biobutanol producers in the United States. DOD is even in on the action.

The sources are everywhere. You'll find out how cheap ethanol is soon enough.


Speculation may have been left out of phoenix1 equation. As soon as a feed stock is selected for ethanol or butanol production, our devoted speculators will quickly find ways to multiply the selected feed stock price. Have a look at what happened to corn and sugar prices in the last few months. Since both sugar and corn are used directly or indirectly as animal feed, just watch what will happen to meat price in the next few months. Meat product speculators will have a field day and fill their pockets again.

The only way to stop that wild speculation is to ban alternative fuel production for edible stock. Using coal, NG/SG and wastes to produce liquid fuel may be a possible solution, at least until such time as our vehicles are electrified.

The comments to this entry are closed.