Better biofuels are a key component for cutting projected US oil use in half in 20 years.
What are cellulosic biofuels?
Cellulosic biofuels can be made from four primary non-food sources: 1) energy crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus, and fast-growing trees such as hybrid poplar and willow 2) agricultural residues left behind after the harvest, such as corn stover (stalks and leaves) and wheat straw 3) waste materials such as lawn clippings, tree trimmings, and some household garbage, and 4) forest materials collected during logging operations such as tree tops and limbs.
To date, food crops (corn, sugar, and vegetable oil) have been the primary source of biofuels for transportation, but increased use of these fuels has created more problems than solutions: rising food prices and food price volatility, and accelerated expansion of agriculture in the tropics.
Cellulosic biofuels offer a better solution, and their production is steadily ramping up at facilities across the country. For a complete list of cellulosic biofuel facilities, visit our cellulosic biofuel facility map.
How much cellulosic biofuel could the US sustainably produce?
To be sustainable, the production of biomass resources for cellulosic biofuels cannot compromise the fertility of agricultural soils, displace land needed to grow our food, or threaten the health of our farms and forests.
Using these criteria, UCS has found that by 2035 the U.S. could sustainably produce up to 677 million dry tons of non-food biomass, of which 610 million dry tons could be potentially used to produce cellulosic biofuels. Energy crops provide the majority (400 million dry tons), followed by agricultural residues (155 million dry tons), waste materials from urban environment and mills (43 million dry tons), and forests (20 million dry tons).
This is enough biomass to produce as much as 54 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel. Based on how quickly commercial scale production can scale up, 40 billion gallons is more realistic.
How do cellulosic biofuels compare with gasoline?
Cellulosic biofuels have been shown to achieve up to a 90 percent reduction in lifecycle global warming emissions compared to gasoline, though the exact amount can vary depending on the process.
Producing 40 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel annually would reduce oil use by an estimated 1.5 million barrels per day and cut global warming emissions by 164 million metric tons per year — equivalent to shutting down 46 average-sized coal-fired power plants.
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