Here Come 'Bioenergy Crops'

Agriculture, Energy departments to invest $4 million in research on new feedstocks for future cellulosic energy industry.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) announced the government would provide $4 million for research in to new plant feedstock genomics that will someday be used in new cellulosic ethanol plants. The announcement came at USDA and DOE's Advancing Renewable Energy conference held here Oct. 10-12.

"We are seeking to accelerate research breakthroughs that contribute towards making biofuels a cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels, with the goal of replacing 30% of transportation fuels with biofuels by 2030," says Ray Orbach, DOE Undersecretary for Science.

At the heart of that discussion is what kinds of biomass will be used as the raw material in these new age ethanol plants of the future.

"Unlike food crops that have been hybridized over many years, energy crops remain in a wild state," says Orbach. "Works needs to be done to optimize crops for bioenergy conversion. We need to enhance crop yield, reduce inputs and boost sustainability."

Among other 'crops,' new funding will look at woody plant tissue, specifically lignocellulosic materials, for biofuels. Developing lignocellulosic crops for energy fuels could use less intensive production techniques and poorer quality land, avoiding competition with food production on better quality land.

While no one is sure what future ethanol crops will be, most speakers in St. Louis conclude the best choices would be perennial crops that would have little input costs. The crops may be well suited to poorer land, leading to speculation that the next generation of ethanol plants will be located in less developed rural areas, giving those economies a needed boost.

"Biofuels represent an enormous economic opportunity for U.S. agriculture, providing farmers with a major new 'cash crop,'" concludes Orbach.

What those crops will be is still a question mark.

Geographic Distribution of Biomass Crops

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