More money for biofuels conversion, more needed for feedstocks

The perennial question about cellulosic biofuels has been will they always be 5 years in the future. I've written about how there has been an explosion in private sector efforts to develop a wide range of technologies to convert biomass to a wide range of different types of biofuels. This week further evidence that this explosion is alive and well comes from a number of reports about investments and partnerships to develop conversion technologies. I believe that this sort of shotgun approach greatly increases the chances that at least one of these different technologies will work and that 5 years from now, the question of economic conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to liquid fuels will be solved.

But that's only part of the story, for the industry to succeed we also need a lot of sustainable and truly low-carbon biomass. And this is where I think research efforts really need to be stepped up. We need to find alternative crops, crop rotations, and management practices so that we're getting more food, more ecosystem services, and more biomass from the land. It doesn't all have to happen overnight--there is more than enough pure waste materials to launch the industry--but ultimately the trends of population growth, global warming, and the need to protect and restore our ecosystems so that we don't drown in our own pollution require across the board improvements. And I am optimistic that we can achieve triple baseline wins. To date there have either been no financial incentives (think carbon) or only weak incentives (think farm bill conservation programs) for farmers to manage our land for anything other than high yields of commodity crops.

We need to create performance incentives and markets for truly sustainable products and ecosystem services and then we need to help farmers figure out how to manage for these multiple goals. Both structuring those incentives and markets and developing and deploying innovative agricultural practices starts with dramatically increased research and development. The government needs to step up, but I hope that some far sighted companies will also see the demand for this sort of management coming. Then we can round out the picture of development in the advanced biofuels world.