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Energy Department Helping Lower Biofuel Costs for the Nation

January 29, 2015 - 9:31am

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Biofuels are produced in a biorefinery (bottom left) from feedstocks such as corn stover (bottom right) and switchgrass (top left).

Biofuels are produced in a biorefinery (bottom left) from feedstocks such as corn stover (bottom right) and switchgrass (top left).

U.S. gasoline prices are currently at their lowest point since 2009, saving you money at the pump. The Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) is looking beyond current gas prices and working to lower the cost of biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol—which can be blended with gasoline—and “drop-in” hydrocarbon fuels—which can directly replace gasoline. These fuels have a lower net greenhouse gas impact and can be produced right here in the United States—driving growth in local economies and increasing our energy security by reducing dependence on foreign oil. These biofuels are part of an all of the above strategy to provide U.S. drivers with energy options for their vehicles. BETO’s research and development work focuses on the following fuels:

1. Cellulosic Ethanol from Corn Stover: This fuel uses non-food parts of corn plants (stalks, cobs, husks, residues) that may otherwise go to waste. Cellulosic ethanol from corn stover can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to its gasoline equivalent by as much as 103% (life-cycle GHG emissions, taking into account all stages of fuel production and end use). Two cellulosic ethanol biorefineries that use corn stover as a feedstock opened this year with help from BETO funding: POET-DSM’s Project LIBERTY in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and Abengoa’s Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas in Hugoton. In 2012, BETO research and development demonstrated a cellulosic ethanol production cost of $2.15 per gallon, down from $9 per gallon a decade earlier. A gasoline/cellulosic ethanol blend can be an alternative to the gasoline/corn grain ethanol blend that is widely available today.

2. Biofuels from Grasses, Woody Crops, Forest Residue: There are many different types of plant material that can be used to create biofuel, including forest residue, and energy crops such as grasses and trees. Biofuel produced using switchgrass can reduce GHG emissions by up to 97% and miscanthus (another type of grass) as high as 115%. These non-food crops can be used to produce cellulosic ethanol, or, in the future, drop-in hydrocarbon fuels. BETO is on track to continue to drive down the cost of hydrocarbon fuels and make them available to the public after hitting its research and development cost target last year of a fuel selling price of $5.26 gallons per gasoline equivalent. Last year, American Process Inc.’s Alpena Biorefinery in Michigan sold its first shipments of cellulosic ethanol produced from forest residue with help from BETO funding.

3. Biofuels from Algae: Another option is producing biofuel from algae in the form of ethanol or drop-in fuel. Algal biofuel can reduce GHG emissions by more than 60% compared to petroleum gasoline. One challenge is for the algae to produce oil to create biofuel at a large-enough scale and cheaply enough without using a lot of water and other inputs. In 2014, BETO-funded projects made advances toward making algae-based fuel a more feasible option for consumers. These included a close-out report from the National Alliance of Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts that highlights cost-reducing recommendations from three years of BETO-funded research.

In the future, every state in the country could produce its own biofuel using crops geographically suited to that region. BETO works with industry to manage integrated biorefineries across the country that demonstrate and test different biofuel conversion processes using a variety of biomass feedstocks. The goal of this work is to drive down the costs of these biofuels so that they can be viable options at the gasoline pump—benefitting energy security, the environment, and the U.S. economy. Go to energy.gov/eere/bioenergy to learn more about our work to diversify fuel options for all Americans. 

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