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Study of 7 years of production data supports billion-ton biofuels feedstock estimate

In 2016, the US Department of Energy (DOE) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) released a study concluding that within 25 years, the US could produce enough biomass to support a bioeconomy, including renewable aquatic and terrestrial biomass resources that could be used for energy and to develop products for economic, environmental, social, and national security benefits. The goal would be to replace 30% of the petroleum consumed in the United States with biofuels. (Earlier post.)

That report, the 2016 Billion-Ton Report, volume 1, updated and expanded upon analysis in the 2011 US Billion-Ton Update (earlier post), which was preceded by the 2005 US Billion Ton Study (earlier post). Now, a new analysis of up to seven years of production data gathered through the Regional Feedstock Partnership, established by DOE and the Sun Grant Initiative, supports the billon-ton estimate. That amount could be available annually by 2030.

This map shows the yield potential for herbaceous nonfood crops, including mixed grasses grown on Conservation Reserve Program land, energycane, Giant Miscanthus, sorghum and switchgrass, that could be used to produced biofuels. The estimates were based in part on the analysis of up to seven years of production data gathered through the Regional Feedstock Partnership, established by the US Department of Energy and the Sun Grant Initiative. Click to enlarge.

Regional field trials were conducted for the most promising bioenergy feedstocks. Based on these numbers and other research we’ve done, we would still see over a billion tons available per year as the bioeconomy continues to develop.

—North Central Regional Sun Grant Center Director Vance Owens

South Dakota State University was the lead institution for the more than $20-million project which began in 2007. The partnership was funded by the US Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office. The project involved researchers from the US Departments of Energy and Agriculture, 35 land-grant universities, Heidelberg University and several industry partners, as well as Idaho National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory.

Field trial results and yield projections for herbaceous crops, including switchgrass, energycane, mixed perennial grasses on Conservation Reserve Program land, giant miscanthus and sorghum, as well as the woody feedstocks poplar and shrub willow, are available online open-access in the January issue of GCB Bioenergy. An article on environmental mapping of biomass resources in the continental United States will also be published in that issue.

This partnership came about as a direct result of the efforts of SDSU Vice President Emeritus for Research and Economic Development Kevin Kephart and others in Sun Grant, Owens explained. More than 130 peer-reviewed papers, including field trial results and yield projects related to corn stover, have been published through this project.

The raw data from the field trials will be available for public use and can be accessed at Knowledge Discovery Framework at the US Department of Energy website.

The duration of this study is unique, Owens pointed out.

Typically these projects last two to three years, but having trials in place for up to seven years is really important in terms of long-term yield potential. Though annual crops suffer, perennials can manage through a one-year drought. Being able to see this was a tremendous advantage—and something we wouldn’t likely see with only a two-year study.

—Vance Owens

For example, researchers were able to gather data about how potential biofuels crops reacted to the 2012 national drought and how they recovered in subsequent years in some instances.

Among the herbaceous energy crops, field-scale trials using traditional agricultural equipment were conducted for switchgrass and mixed perennial grasses suitable for use on CRP land, while smaller individual plots were utilized for energycane and giant miscanthus due to a lack of vegetative planting materials for these species.

Crop potential varies by region, Owens said. “There’s not one that makes sense everywhere; it’s more of a localized environment.” The nationwide yield potential maps track which crops are best suited to a particular area.

Switchgrass is more productive than miscanthus in some of the northern regions because miscanthus is not as winter hardy. However, energycane is well adapted and highly productive in the Deep South

In the future, the researchers would like to do side-by-side comparisons of different species across multiple environments to better understand their yield potential.

The model used to estimate yield potential, known as PRISM-ELM, included yield-limiting factors, such as water availability, low-winter and high-summer temperature response, soil pH, salinity, and drainage. Modelers and agronomists from each species group met periodically to exchange information and review yield potential maps.


  • Lee, D. K., Aberle, E., Anderson, E. K., Anderson, W., Baldwin, B. S., Baltensperger, D., Barrett, M., Blumenthal, J., Bonos, S., Bouton, J., Bransby, D. I., Brummer, C., Burks, P. S., Chen, C., Daly, C., Egenolf, J., Farris, R. L., Fike, J. H., Gaussoin, R., Gill, J. R., Gravois, K., Halbleib, M. D., Hale, A., Hanna, W., Harmoney, K., Heaton, E. A., Heiniger, R. W., Hoffman, L., Hong, C. O., Kakani, G., Kallenbach, R., Macoon, B., Medley, J. C., Missaoui, A., Mitchell, R., Moore, K. J., Morrison, J. I., Odvody, G. N., Richwine, J. D., Ogoshi, R., Parrish, J. R., Quinn, L., Richard, E., Rooney, W. L., Rushing, J. B., Schnell, R., Sousek, M., Staggenborg, S. A., Tew, T., Uehara, G., Viands, D. R., Voigt, T., Williams, D., Williams, L., Wilson, L. T., Wycislo, A., Yang, Y. and Owens, V. (2018) “Biomass production of herbaceous energy crops in the United States: field trial results and yield potential maps from the multiyear regional feedstock partnership.” GCB Bioenergy. doi: 10.1111/gcbb.12493



Shouldn't existing farm land be used to produce edible products/ food, cotton, weeds and essential pharma-chemicals for a fast growing population (of 1,000+ million) and solar/wind and other REs to produce electricity for HVAC, lights, cooking, factories, industries, BEVs and clean H2 for FCEVs etc?


They use plant stalks from food/feed plants.
It is the same land, water and nutrients.
Less than half the stalks need to stay on the land.


Only replacing 30% of the petroleum used in the USA is setting the sights far too low.  A billion dry tons of biomass can make at least 800 million tons of methanol (probably more), which comes to over 260 billion gallons.  Total US gasoline consumption, which is about 45% of all US petroleum consumed, is only about 140 billion GPY.  Between PHEVs and methanol you could replace 100% of motor fuel and 70% or more of total petroleum.

The key is not to discard any carbon along the way.  The approaches currently being used are horribly wasteful of carbon, thowing it away as CO2 either in autothermal gasification or fermentation.  The rule should be that fixed carbon in the feedstock should all be turned into product.

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