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GLBRC research review concludes cellulosic biofuels can benefit the environment if managed correctly

Cellulosic biofuels could provide an environmentally sustainable way of meeting energy needs—but with a few important caveats, according to a new review of research by a team from the US Department of Energy-funded Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC). Their paper is published in the journal Science.

Although not yet a market force, cellulosic biofuels are routinely factored into future climate mitigation scenarios because of their potential to both displace petroleum use and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Those benefits, however, are complicated by the need for vast amounts of land to produce cellulosic biofuels on a large scale.

Here, we synthesize recent empirical research that targets these concerns to identify potential solutions for managing the land use–related trade-offs of cellulosic biofuels. We identify existing knowledge gaps but also conclude that current knowledge is sufficient to inform policies that will ensure environmental benefits. Policy is needed because many of these benefits are conditional, and the stakes are high because of the amount of land involved: In the United States alone, projected biomass needs require 33 to 40 Mha of productive land or >50 Mha of marginal land, whereas total US crop production currently uses 124 Mha. But with the proper safeguards, the likelihood of environmental payoff appears high. We organize our conclusions to articulate seven emerging principles that are relevant globally to the sustainability of cellulosic biofuel crop production.

—Robertson et al.

Phil Robertson, University Distinguished Professor of Ecosystem Science at Michigan State University and lead author on the study and GLBRC colleagues from MSU, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Maryland drew on ten years of empirical research to identify the emerging principles for managing the complex environmental tradeoffs of cellulosic biofuel.

  1. Perennial vegetation, whether herbaceous grasses and dicots or short-rotation trees, offers environmental outcomes superior to those of annual crops—high net energy return on investment, greater soil C and N retention, and improved insect and wildlife habitat—with no observable impact on landscape water balances in humid temperate climates.

  2. Polycultures appear thus far to offer little productivity advantage over monocultures, but neither do they harm productivity so long as they are dominated by high-productivity species.

  3. Biodiverse plantings provide ecosystem services such as pollination, pest protection, and wildlife conservation that often benefit other cropping systems in the landscape, and relatively little plant diversity can provide disproportionately large benefits.

  4. Carbon debt generated by stand establishment can be minimized by avoiding tillage and by avoiding lands with large C stores either above ground (such as forests) or below ground (such as wetlands).

  5. Nitrogen fertilization can substantially discount the climate and water quality benefits of bioenergy crops if applied in excess of plant need; some high-productivity perennial crops require little if any supplemental N.

  6. Food-fuel economic conflicts and C debt generated by ILUC can be avoided by establishing bioenergy crops on marginal lands not used for food production, and also by producing biomass from cover crops in annual cropping systems.

  7. Economic appeal, relative to alternative land uses, is a sine qua non for landowners to be willing to convert their lands to bioenergy crop production.

A further, overarching principle is that there is no best crop for all locations. Rather, one must consider trade-offs with respect to desired outcomes.

—Robertson et al.

According to the researchers, these principles are enough to begin guiding sound policy decisions for producing sustainable biofuels. Looking forward, however, the team calls for more research on designing landscapes to provide the optimal suite of energy, climate and environmental benefits. They say that understanding how best to integrate benefits and tradeoffs will be key to the future success of cellulosic biofuels.

With biofuels, the stakes are high. But the returns are also high, and if we take key principles into account we can begin shaping the policies and practices that could help make cellulosic biofuels a triple win for the economy, the climate and for environmental sustainability in general.

—Phil Robertson

Additional GLBRC scientists contributing to this paper include Bradford Barham, Bruce Dale, Stephen Hamilton, Cesar Izaurralde, Randall Jackson, Douglas Landis, Scott Swinton, Kurt Thelen and James Tiedje.


  • G. Philip Robertson, Stephen K. Hamilton, Bradford L. Barham, Bruce E. Dale, R. Cesar Izaurralde, Randall D. Jackson, Douglas A. Landis, Scott M. Swinton, Kurt D. Thelen, James M. Tiedje (2017) “Cellulosic biofuel contributions to a sustainable energy future: Choices and outcomes” Science Vol. 356, Issue 6345 doi: 10.1126/science.aal2324



Bio-fuels burned in internal combustion engines still pollutes. To reduce the GHG and smog problems, you need to switch to renewables and electric transportation.


Biofuel is renewable and electric power has a large pollution footprint. Double this for for international community.

The internal combustion engine is improving at a faster rate as compared to power production improvements. Hybrid technology is complementary to ICE and both work in tandem to maximize benefits of each other. The sum total of improvements to date by improving the ICE is multitudes above the battery car and the trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

Biofuel processing plants can capture low carbon power and produce a conventional renewable fuel with very low carbon footprint and do so with low cost. This may be the best/easiest path forward to tune up the transportation sector to lower emission foot print. There is really no down side.

Biofuel feed stock provides a unique opportunity within the natural carbon cycle to turbo charge carbon capture. For example mature forests offer no carbon sinking as the older trees die off. Same for threat of forest fires and insect damage. Biofuel will convert and pay for optimal forest growth per modern forestry practices that turbo charge tree growth, lower fire threat, improve timber quality, and can be managed to maximize wild life habitat.

Biofuel provides a unique opportunity for desolate third world countries to convert poor or barren land to production. To improve trade deficits, improve agriculture profession, to improve wildlife and environmental impact. Poor countries need the opportunity.


You use the land to grow corn and sorghum so use the stalks for cellulose ethanol. Reform the ethanol on the vehicle for fuel cells, no combustion, no pollution.


What all the Greens are missing is that biofuels produce far too little per ha-yr to be anything close to a direct replacement for fossil fuels.  You run out of net primary productivity (NPP) long before you run out of need.

This is where indirection comes in.  Instead of trying to substitute biofuels 1:1 for fossil fuels, you use e.g. electricity to replace 2/3 to 3/4 and let biofuels fill in for the rest.  Instead of trying to store instantaneous surpluses of wind or solar energy as electricity or hydrogen, you use them to process biomass into storable fuel at a far higher conversion efficiency than a stand-alone process allows.

Pushing directly against hard problems works poorly.  Going around the hard parts in easier directions works better.

Juan Valdez

Growing, harvesting, brewing then burning biofuels seems like a partial solution for large scale diesel motors such as ships, planes, earth movers and the like. Batteries won't suffice for many years due to weight and size.

For 90% of other transportation electrification seems much more efficient. Just build solar farms and feed the grid and transportation directly. Seems a lot simpler and scalable than harvesting MASSIVE amounts of land.


E-P & Juan have the right of it. Studies have shown a plug-in with 100 mile range can cover 90% of the average driver's needs and 75% of drivers average less than 40 miles a day. Save the biofuel for the range extender engines.


harvesting MASSIVE amounts of land

You don't need more land, you grow corn and sorghum on the land already, just harvest the stalks. The farmers like the revenue and they can plant early next spring.


All right, SJC, since it's your solution you can illuminate us on the quantity of crop byproducts per acre, the amount of fuel you can produce per ton, and with Agriculture department figures on acres harvested you can tell us just how much fuel we could expect to get per year.

Then you can compare this to Energy Information Agency numbers on how much fuel we actually use.

Go ahead, it'll be a good mental exercise.


You don't exist.


Begging off like that is the excuse of the innumerate.  An actual quantitative analysis is something you cannot do, and you know it.  Someone who was merely uncertain would at least try.


Successful farmers are always chasing the triple bottom line. Anytime a by product can be put to work or a costly pollution problem mitigated, there is opportunity.

On a district level we see sugar cane and Macadamia husk and shell burned to heat and power the mills.
Much biomass based power surplus can be used on farm or in the district of origin. That is a huge benefit in its own right.

There is also a very profitable business in selling cane (bogas) for mulch but also (don't try this at home) it's a favorite cattle or horse feed as it presumably contains high sugars.
Pine plantation operations have a steady market in pine bark for the nursery industry as a prefered material. It keeps people employed,solves a supply problem and contributes $ to the bottom line.
The Macadamia shell sieved can also make an excellent potting mix. The question is what is the best use for material X ?
Many farming districts have similar resources which
simply removal from the site is an advantage from a biological security perspective.

Municipal waste streams are another disposal problem that can be utilised profitably. But they will struggle to balance the utilities energy budget.

The idea for range lands either cultivated or wild harvest will similarly depend on the other benefits from possible environmental services from fire hazard reduction weed control, possible land improvements to do with other downstream agricultural practices.

But to think that the single commodity objective will carry the day is as the article states is really a non starter.
It will probably not pay the fuel bill.


Another solution would be to go from current 25 mpg fleet to 50 mpg with HEVs to reduce fuel consumption by 50% and then go to 125 mpg with improved lighter PHEVs and finally move to 200-500 mpg with a mix of HEVs, PHEVs and BEVS-FCEVs.

Use nuclear, solar and wind energy to recharge batteries and split water for H2.

Progressively replace polluting diesel trucks, buses and locomotives with FC units. Introduce a progressive (starting at 1 cent/month/L for the next 5 years) Federal pollution tax on all fossil and bio-fuels. Compensate the low salaries with reduced Income Tax rates.

Olman Grand

wow, this is great

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