U.S. has potential to produce sustainable biomass

U.S. has potential to produce sustainable biomass

Graphic courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy

One billion tons of biological material; that’s enough to fill a 16-foot flatbed truck stacked roughly up to the moon.

But the United States wouldn’t have to “shoot for the moon” to produce this much biomass every year, reports the U.S. Department of Energy.

According to the 2016 Billion-Ton Report, within the next 15 years (considering technology, prices and demand), the United States has the potential to sustainably produce at least one billion tons of biomass annually, while continuing to meet demands for food, feed, industrial uses and exports. This is about three times more than currently used. This also would be enough to power seven million homes and produce 25 percent of U.S. transportation fuels, including aviation fuels.

Although the market demand for transportation fuel has been filled by petroleum-derived gasoline and jet fuel, the federal government has long recognized the need to diversify our supply. The Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office has been working to strategically advance technologies that make biofuels from non-food biomass resources cost-competitive for American consumers.

A recently published the article, “An Assessment of the Potential Products and Economic and Environmental Impacts Resulting from a Billion Ton Bioeconomy.” Based on data in the 2016 Billion-Ton Report, the article illustrates that the United States has the potential to realize many economic and environmental benefits.

The United States could generate $260 billion in direct revenue and 1.1 million direct jobs in a wide range of sectors, including farming, plant operations, scientific research and product and equipment design. Also, a flourishing bioeconomy with many products from a variety of sources would give the United States greater flexibility to accommodate market fluctuations.

The United States could achieve production of a billion tons of biomass with minimal land-use change, while preserving soil quality. Energy crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus can grow on marginal lands and reduce nutrient runoff and erosion.

Models predict that farmers would only need to use 6 percent of U.S. pastureland to grow enough energy crops to reach the one billion tons. Moreover, this has the potential to reduce life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector by about 25 percent. Also, the study showed that about the same amount of water would be required to produce fuels from non-food biomass sources as from petroleum.

So how do we get there? Models in the 2016 Billion-Ton Report show that the two biggest potential biomass sources are agricultural wastes, which are available to be harvested or used already, and energy crops (planted only after meeting acreage requirements for conventional crops), which would require development.

To achieve annual production and use of one billion tons of biomass, much work would need to be done along the entire supply chain, including expansion of biomass resources, adoption of innovative technologies to improve harvesting and conversion to end-use products, construction of biorefineries, workforce development, and policy implementation.

The U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture have complementary programs and core research areas that support the development of a sustainable bioeconomy, to help the United States to meet society’s demands for energy, products and power. 

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Companies: U.S. Department of Energy

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