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End of the road

Date: 2021-05-26 10:13:41.0
Author: Jon Evans


End of the road

End of the road.

Photo: Volokhatiuk/Getty Images.

After more than 13 years, this will be my last feature for the BioFPR website. Over that time, I have written over 300 features on many and varied aspects of biofuels and bioproducts. So, for this last feature, I thought it might be interesting to go back through all those features to see what they reveal about how the biofuel and bioproduct sector has developed and evolved over the past 13 years.

Now, obviously, this will not be a particularly comprehensive, or even very reliable, review of how the sector has changed, seeing as it will be built on the rather shaky foundations of whatever I decided to write about each month. That usually depended on what new research was published, what I had written about in the past few months and whether I could group together several similar pieces of research, which I was always rather partial to doing. But on going through my surprisingly substantial store of features, certain themes do become apparent.

Rather ironically, one clear theme is quite how much the biofuels sector hasn't developed or evolved over the past 13 years. When I started writing for BioFPR, first-generation biofuels were dominant while cellulosic ethanol and other second-generation biofuels had not really left the laboratory. And that is still basically the case now. 

In one of my earliest BioFPR features, entitled Gaining momentum and published in February 2008, I suggested that the awarding of grants for the development of four small-scale cellulosic biofuel plants by the US Department of Energy might drive the commercialization of cellulosic biofuels. Yet in April this year, I was still writing, in a feature entitled Wood good for one pot, how "only bioethanol produced from starch- or sugar-rich crops has been widely commercialized, because of the difficulties of producing bioethanol from general plant biomass".

Despite writing countless features on the development of new pre-treatment methods, the search for novel enzymes, the creation of more efficient fermenting microbes and the design of one-pot production processes, cellulosic biofuels can still not be produced cheaply enough for widespread commercialization. According to the US Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), less than 5% of the bioethanol produced in the US is currently derived from cellulosic biomass; the vast majority (93.5%) still comes from corn starch. Likewise, most of the other second-generation biofuels I have written about over the years, from algal biodiesel to bio-oil to butanol, remain stuck in the laboratory or the pilot plant.

Partly as a consequence, the predicted expansion in biofuel production has failed to materialize. The 2007 US Renewable Fuel Standard called for the production of 30 billion gallons of biofuels by 2020, of which 15 billion gallons would be advanced, second-generation biofuels. In reality, according to the RFA, just under 14 billion gallons of bioethanol were produced in the US in 2020, almost exactly the same as produced in 2011. Now, the covid-19 pandemic obviously affected production last year, but at its highest in 2018, bioethanol production was only 16 billion gallons, far below the targets set by the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Liquid biofuels may even have missed their moment, thanks to the rise of electric cars, which offer an alternative and increasingly popular way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. But if my features indicate a rather disappointing journey for liquid biofuels over the past 13 years, they suggest a much more eventful one for other bioproducts. Perhaps the single most important development over the past few years has been power stations switching from burning coal to burning biomass such as wood and energy grasses for electricity production (see Greener and more pleasant land?). 

Other positive developments include the development of ways to produce novel materials, such as bioplastics (see Various alternative options) and cellulose-based materials (see Cellulose adapts to new roles), and industrial chemicals from plant biomass. Indeed, some have argued that, given the difficulties of producing cellulosic biofuels, it makes sense to focus our finite supplies of biomass on generating electricity (see Thinking outside the box) and chemicals (see Putting the case for chemicals).

Nevertheless, as my features also make clear, researchers have never stopped exploring a vast array of approaches for making the production of cellulosic biofuels more efficient and cost effective, and they may well eventually succeed. But I won’t be here to write about it.


The views represented here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd. or of the SCI.

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