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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cellulosic Ethanol: Feedstocks, Conversion Technologies, Economics, and Policy Options

Randy Schnepf, Coordinator
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

In the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (P.L. 110-140), Congress mandated the use of a large and rapidly increasing volume of biofuels as part of the U.S. national transportation fuel base. In particular, the share of cellulosic biofuels is mandated to grow to 16 billion gallons by 2022—a daunting challenge considering that no commercial production existed as of mid-2010. Cellulosic biofuels can be produced from almost any sort of biomass. As a result, a variety of biomass types that can be produced or collected under a range of geographic settings are potential feedstock sources. However, part of the mandate’s challenge will be encouraging farmers to produce or collect non-traditional biomass materials that require multiple growing seasons to become established, and for which markets currently do not exist. Participation represents a substantial risk for producers, and even under the most optimistic conditions, U.S. agriculture will be challenged to produce the enormous volume of biomass needed to meet the biofuels mandate.

Potential biomass feedstocks are numerous and widespread throughout the United States, and include woody biomass, perennial grasses, and agricultural and forest residues. Each type of biomass faces tradeoffs in terms of production, storage, and transportation. Dedicated energy and tree crops have large up-front establishment costs and will likely take several years to produce a commercial harvest, but can produce high yields with relatively low maintenance costs thereafter. Residues are nearly costless to produce, but confront difficult collection strategies and do not always produce uniform biomass for processing. Agricultural residues face complicated trade-offs between soil nutrient loss and biomass yield, as well as questions about the optimal timing strategy for harvesting the main crop and residue (either jointly or separately). Logging residues confront a tradeoff with energy production at the plant (via burning).

None of the potential feedstocks (other than starch from corn) are economical to convert into biofuels under current commercial technology without substantial federal policy intervention. In addition to federal policy and the choice of feedstock, the processing technology used, the distribution infrastructure, and blending rates are expected to play major roles in the economic viability of cellulosic biofuels. Different processing technologies yield different biofuels in terms of energy content and usability, while also strongly influencing the economic viability of biofuels production. Ethanol produced under current biochemical processes yields only 67% of the energy of an equivalent volume of gasoline, and (due to its chemical properties) cannot use the same storage tanks, pipelines, and retail pumps as gasoline. In contrast, synthetic petroleum products (i.e., green hydrocarbons) obtained from biomass processed using more costly thermochemical technology yield an energy content nearly equal to petroleum fuels and can be used in existing fuel infrastructure. Currently ethanol is blended in most gasoline at about a 10% rate. If the rising usage mandate is to be met, the biofuels blending rate will necessarily have to increase, at which point the energy equivalence of a biofuel will likely influence the choice of processing technology, distribution infrastructure, and federal policy incentives.

Many uncertainties remain concerning biomass producer participation rates, the choice of biomass, and associated yields and costs of production, harvest, storage, and transportation, as well as contractual marketing arrangements, plant location, and conversion technology, among other issues. This report attempts to summarize the current state of knowledge regarding potential biomass feedstocks, production and marketing constraints, processing technologies, and the economics of biomass from field to fuel under current and hypothetical policy circumstances. As such, it is intended to serve as a reference for policymakers interested in understanding the complexity underlying the development of a large-scale, biomass-based fuel system. An executive summary of the report is available in Chapter 1.

Date of Report: October 22, 2010
Number of Pages: 78
Order Number: R41460
Price: $29.95

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