Forging the necessary path
September 21, 2011
By Elton Alisson, in Campos do Jordão
Agência FAPESP – There are no technical barriers to the production of biofuels today. But there are still many opportunities to fundamentally improve upon their manufacturing and diversification processes.
Such is the opinion of one of the world’s leading specialists on biofuel research, Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) at the University of California Berkeley.
The scientist participated in the 1st Brazilian Bioenergy Science and Technology Conference (BBEST). The event, held in August in Campos do Jordão, brought together some 700 researchers and company representatives from Brazil and 21 other nations to discuss recent scientific and technological advances, business and politics aimed at developing the sector.
According to Somerville, the production processes of ethanol from cellulose, sugarcane or corn are all very inefficient. Because of this, efficient production of cellulosic fuels through means different from gasification will require innovation in sustainable production, in depolymerization and in the conversion of raw materials to liquid fuel.
“There are many different routes to improve the production processes of cellulosic fuels. However, due to the interdependencies of the elements along the whole trajectory of the conversion process of biomass into fuel, research on perfected biofuel production processes is still in a technically immature phase,” he said.
Among the current topics of research carried out to improve the processing of raw materials for the production of biofuels, the scientist listed lignin depolymerization and its conversion to biofuels as well as the use of cellobiose instead of glucose for the conversion of xylose to ethanol.
“As plants can be used on a broad scale to capture and store solar energy, one of the ways to move in the direction of developing low carbon energy sources is to convert their biomass into fuel,” he said.
“Because of this, there is renewed interest in identifying plants that present prime biomass accumulation and in understanding the phases of production associated with large scale farming and the sustainable harvest of these species,” he said.
Research in the United States
According to Somerville, since legislation on the production and use of biofuels came into effect in the United States (the Renewable Fuel Standard RFS2, which includes the Energy Security and Independence Act of 2007), the production of biofuels has grown rapidly.
The new regulations established minimum consumption of 45 billion liters of biofuels in the U.S. beginning in 2010, reaching at least 136 billion liters in 2022. Of this final quantity, in order to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s stipulations for reduction of greenhouse gases, nearly 80 billion liters per year should be destined for the three types of fuels considered to be advanced: cellulosic, biomass diesel, and “other advanced fuels.”
In order to meet the 2022 production goal for renewable fuels, the U.S. will bump up construction of nine biorefineries for production of cellulosic ethanol or another lignocellulosic biomass-based fuel that were slated for construction starting only next year.
According to Somerville, the first to come on stream will be Vercipia Biofuels in Tampa, Florida. Construction began this year and grass-based ethanol production should begin in 2013 at the rate of some 36 million gallons per year.
The biorefinery belongs to British Petroleum (BP) which, in 2007, allocated US$ 500 million over more than ten years to establish the biosciences and energy institute that Somerville directs.
“EBI’s goal is to explore the application of modern biological knowledge to the energy sector, developing research in areas like cellulosic fuels, petroleum microbiology, biolubrificants and carbon biosequestration,” he detailed.
One of the most promising raw materials studied by the American scientist’s group for the production of cellulosic ethanol is a perennial grass native to the United States that requires little agricultural investment and helps capture carbon from the atmosphere.
The 1st BBEST was sponsored by FAPESP, BIOEN-FAPESP, CNPq, Capes, CTBE, UNICA, Braskem, Embraer, BP Biofuels Brazil, Monsanto and Oxiteno.
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