Biofuels: The Future is Here

The answer to the twin problems of global climate change and petroleum-related geopolitical blackmail might come from an unlikely source -- garbage. Biofuels created from landfill gas and crop residues are likely to help U.S. consumers reduce their reliance on foreign oil. While some visionaries have been proposing this effort for years now, that point of view got a recent big boost from President George W. Bush, who urged the nation to increase its production of biofuels and ethanol in an effort to wean drivers from consuming the vast quantities of gasoline we now use.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush proposed a new renewable energy standard that will require fuel blenders to use up to 35 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2017. The proposal found an immediate sympathetic ear in the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), which hopes to catapult bio-based fuel technology from its current level into the American mainstream.

If the President's wishes are carried out, America could soon be producing a significant portion of its transportation fuel needs from crops and crop residues with the help of improved crop yields from agricultural biotechnology, increased ethanol production efficiency from industrial biotechnology and the production of cellulosic biomass ethanol. Science suggests this is a good idea, since one gallon of cellulose biomass ethanol can replace 30 gallons of imported oil equivalents. Further, ethanol from cellulose produces 85 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, and carbon sequestered by dedicated energy crops could eventually provide a net greenhouse gas benefit to the environment, according to published studies.

"With recent advances in industrial biotechnology, the United States can significantly increase production of biofuels to meet the ambitious goals set by the President," BIO Executive Vice President Brent Erickson said. "The biotechnology and ethanol industries are ready to take motor fuel production to the next level."

The initiative is seen as important in getting farmers, gasoline refiners, consumers and investors on board to make the biofuels sector a major contributor to American energy independence. The good news is there is the likelihood that we can cost-effectively turn what are now regarded as waste products -- things like corn stover and cereal straws -- into fuel that will supplement our current fuel supply. Money that is currently being spent overseas will stay at home to invest in the sustainable harvesting of agricultural residues, the infrastructure to deliver feed stocks from farms to new biorefineries and, of course, those biorefineries themselves.

"And it is doesn't stop with biofuels," Erickson said. "Other products currently made from petroleum resources, such as bio-based plastics, can also be made from the same agricultural feed stocks used for biofuels. The President recognizes that we are moving toward the creation of a bio-based economy and that is good news for our economy, our security and our environment."

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes on the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.