Rehabilitating Bio-Fuels Part 2: Interesting Second Generation Options

Planting an elite conifer seedling

My previous post retraced the precipitous decline in the reputation of biofuels that occurred between 2006 and today.  In this post I’m going to talk about just a few of the activities going on for “second generation” biofuels (beyond corn, soy and palm oil, wheat…).  One of the key features of these initiatives is that they reduce the competition with food crops – something which will only become a more significant issue in the future.  I’ll be talking about several Universities and companies who have hung in there through the ups and downs of oil prices and the “trendiness” and “rejection” of biofuels.  I think that these folks are going to make significant long-term contributions. If you have been soured in the past on the biofuel concept, please consider these alternatives.


There was a recent Wall Street Journal article about “5 Technologies that could change everything.”  One they included was biofuels from Algae.  People have been working on this for a long time including a very long government effort.  The great thing about algae is that you can grow it in places and with water sources that are completely unsuitable for farming.  Algae can be extremely productive.  The problem is that the low capital investment systems are less productive and the highly productive, “bio-reactor” approach has a huge capital cost.  The good news is that there are enough companies working away on this that sooner or later there might be a break-through.  I won’t pretend to be an expert on how this is going, but I have a hunch it will eventually become significant.

Biofuel Grows on Trees (or at least it can)

Wood has been the world’s dominant biofuel for millennia, but there are some really cool things going on in that arena today.  The advantages of trees are that they can be grown on land that isn’t suitable for food crops, they are great for biodiversity (particularly if grown with the sort of comprehensive landscape management plan employed by progressive timber companies today).  Trees also provide their own “storage” of the biomass.  That is an advantage over an annual crop has to be harvested over a fairly narrow window and stored for use in a biofuel production facility through the rest of the year.  Also, trees don’t require much if any nitrogen fertilization so they don’t produce nitrous oxide emissions above natural levels for soils.

The great thing for the US is that there are vast areas in the American Southeast that have the rainfall and heat to grow these forest crops.  If a forest plot in that area is allowed to regenerate on its own after harvest it generates 0.5 dry tons/acre/year of new biomass.  With the sort of improved tree lines that are available today that can rise to 6-8 tons.  For example, the forestry company, Arborgen produces 275 million improved tree seedlings a year that have that sort of yield potential.  With future biotech lines for pines or Arborgen’s frost tolerant Eucalyptus, Arborgen estimates that it will be able to produce wood on the order of 18-23 dry tons/acre/year.  That would be enough to generate 1,800-2,300 gallons of cellulosic ethanol/acre/year.  Arborgen has recently entered into a partnership with a bio-energy collaborative centered at Clemson University and involving several other companies that play different roles in the bio-energy process.  There are interesting groups around the country working on other tree species for different climates like the Tree Bio-safety and Genomics Research Cooperative associated with Oregon State University, and there are other major tree genetics companies like Cellfor that supply improved tree seedlings on a major scale. There is a lot of good stuff happening in this field, far more than I can adequately describe in this post. 

Perennial C4 Grasses

Switchgrass and Miscanthus are other perennial crops that have gotten a great deal of investment over the years and most recently by companies like Mendel and Ceres. I don’t want to short-change those crops because there has been some really great progress here.  These players have also engaged in the development of other very interesting options like the annual crop, fiber sorghum which is also well suited for low food crop productivity areas.  Exactly where and how these grasses will be grown is will determine just how positive contribution they will make. These grasses will certainly play a role in the future of biofuels.

Tropical Sugar-beet

A less well-known biofuel crop is the “Tropical Sugar-beet.”  This crop was developed by a breeder for the global company, Syngenta, over more than a decade.  It is now an amazingly productive crop that can be used for either food sugar or ethanol.  It was developed for Asia, but it can grow in some parts of the Southern US.  It does not need advances in conversion of cellulose to sugar that are required by many other cellulosic sources.   Tropical sugarbeet is currently being developed in India, but it has a limiting factor in the US that is absurd.  There has been such a big marketing push for “Cane sugar” as an alternative to “high fructose corn syrup” that beet sugar (which is exactly the same as cane) has been made to be “brand unfriendly” for food companies.  This is just dumb.  The great thing about a crop like Tropical Sugar Beet is that it can supply either the food or the fuel market, depending on the price.  That makes it a more attractive crop for a biofuel producer.


So, my conclusion is that environmentally conscious folks need to re-visit their opinions about biofuels.  There are some very interesting options which don’t have the food vs fuel issues of the first generation.  We should probably also remember that for these crops, or even for a crop like corn, the details of how it is grown are key to whether it is a really good thing for the world or not. It takes a full life cycle analysis (LCA) to tell.  Let’s not give up on the idea that we can use plants to harvest solar energy.

You are welcome to comment on this site or you can email me at [email protected].

Conifer planting image from USFS Region 5


  1. Russ

    My apologies for hogging up so much comment field space ; )

    The rejection of food-based biofuels was the result of science catching up to the lay press hype. While the politicians from both sides of the aisle were high-fiving each other the researchers were quietly working away.

    Your sugar beet link has a pair of // on the end that make it unusable.

    Here are two more links to Mongabay graphics that show how beets compare to sugarcane on net energy and gallons per acre. Note that cane is superior to beets and even cellulosic on net energy gain.


    Sugar is also food.

    “..But as mills use cane to produce more sugar in response to a world deficit that pushed prices to near their highest in three decades, prices for ethanol, made using the same cane, have leapt up to 50 percent in places in just a few months… Drivers have gone back to gasoline..”

    Source: http://www.reuters.com/article/environmentNews/idUSTRE59K3YU20091021?feedType=RSS&feedName=environment

    It does not seem wise to me to spend much time and energy debating the pros and cons of something that does not exist and may never exist (affordable algae and cellulosic). We can, however anticipate what the debate would look like if they ever achieve commercial viability.

    A recent study in Science demonstrated that using biomass to make electricity is about 100% more efficient use of that biomass than converting it into a liquid fuel. Biomass is limited. So, who should get it, liquid fuel purveyors or electricity and heat generators?

    Source 1: http://www.physorg.com/news160925431.html
    Source 2:

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/sci;324/5930/1055?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=Elliott+Campbell&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&resourcetype=HWCIT (sub reqd)

    The following is from a recent article:

    “..The leftover plant material — also called corn stover — is being bought by some energy companies. They turn it into pellets and sell it to coal-fired power plants.

    Some companies will pay up to $20 a ton for long-term contracts. At an average of 3 tons per acre, a mere 100-acre field could yield a gross profit of $6,000.

    But University of Nebraska-Lincoln farm experts say that residue is even more valuable to the farmer by adding nutrients and lending structure to the soil.

    Experts say the nutrient value of corn residue ranges from $17 a ton to $46 a ton.

    Without that residue, the farmer will have to add more fertilizer, raising input costs…”

    Source: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5i7vUtLGiDHp6gRom-AZMaRObyzTAD9BK80F00

    Following is an honest quote from a Nebraska corn farmer:

    “The food versus fuel argument is, you know, not my decision,” Jeff Shaner told us. “It is the market decision. If in five years the market is telling me to go with switchgrass, we’ll go with switchgrass. … Whether if be corn or soybeans or whatever the case may be, I just hope I am flexible enough to realize it and change what needs to be done in order to be successful.”

    Source: http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/10/24/sotu.king.nebraska/

    That’s right. He will grow grass instead of corn if that is where the money is.

    Turning trees into energy, be it liquid or electric, turns out to be anything but carbon neutral. It will take three decades to suck back out of the atmosphere what burning a 30-year-old tree put into the atmosphere.

    Source: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/ngreene/video_science_on_mustfix_bioma.html

    And a tree farm is no more biodiverse than a corn field.

  2. Steve Savage

    I guess we can try to figure out what the carbon footprint is of the server capacity for your comments, but I’m guessing it is pretty small.

    Sorry, but your Mongabay data is irrelevant. That was for European sugar-beets (short season, not an improved crop). These Tropical Sugar beets are ab entirely new crop that can produce both food and fuel in places where much less of either was being produced before.

    The sugarcane ethanol industry has been working both the food and fuel markets for years. This is an industry with a relatively small land footprint (compared to something like corn or wheat). Some of that sugar goes into consumer products that are completely optional and even negative from a health point of view. The world is fed with starch crops, not sugar crops.

    I understand the question of biomass going for electricity or liquid fuels. As a biologist I’m naturally slanted towards the biological process (fermentation), but I do believe that thermochemical processes like old-school burning and new-school processes like fast pyrolysis play a role here. I suspect market economics will resolve this on a case-by-case basis and we will end up with some mix.

    The one argument that favors the biological approach (for at least some situations) is that plants have gone to all the trouble to make some really complex chemicals which have vastly more value to us per gram than starch or sugar. If we can get good at pulling these “high value co-products” out of the biological energy conversion stream, we have done a smart thing. I’m not saying that is an easy thing to do, but there are definitely companies out there striving to do just that.

    Again, thanks for the feedback

  3. Russ

    I’m sure you’re right about those not being tropical beets in the charts. My bad. Learn something new everyday on the internet.

    Aren’t the the corn ethanol and soy/canola/palm oil biodiesel industries also competing with food producers for feedstock?

    Our cells combine oxygen with sugar to run their engines. What does that kernel of corn that we eat become at the end of the digestive process before uptake in a living cell? Sucrose is just a few short metabolic steps from becoming glucose. Sugar is food and most food eaten is broken down into carbohydrates and sugars by our digestive system. Look at the labels on the food in our fridges and cupboards. Sugars and vegetable oils are in practically everything.

    I own forest property. I remember the day I visited it and found the adjacent forest was gone. The smell of pine oil was strong. It seemed wrong that the death of a forest should smell so good.

    It had been cut down for paper fiber to generate a little income for the Boy Scouts. Ten years later it has recovered maybe a fifth of its stored carbon.

    Picture a world where paper companies compete with power utilities and fuel refiners for that fiber. Our forests are going to be in trouble. A recent article in Science just pointed this out. Our present laws assume biomass conversion is carbon neutral. At the time of legislation, scientists were not consulted. The politicians had not been informed by the scientists about the large time lag involved (decades to centuries).

    There is a desperate need to change the laws to count the CO2 emissions released from biomass. Credit should only be given to biomass put in reserve to absorb carbon. We have a real mess on our hands, as happened with corn ethanol, as usual.

    Source: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/ngreene/video_science_on_mustfix_bioma.html

    This is what biologists and other scientists like yourself are for.

  4. Steve Savage

    You’ve got to remember that turnover is a very natural part of a forest ecosystem. Fires have always been a part of the equation as evidenced by all the species that are adapted to wait to germinate until there has been a fire event. Commercial harvest of a forest is not quite the same thing, but it is a mechanism to allow necessary renewal. The science of sound forestry management is well defined and practiced by the large companies in forestry.

    Right now, millions of trees of several species are dying across the country because of exotic pests (I think this may also be related to global warming making the trees more vulnerable). What we should be doing is sending around mobile pyrolysis systems and turn all that carbon into a combination of bio-oil and char. The char will lock that carbon up for around a thousand years and also improve the soils where it is spread.

  5. anonymous

    We have spent over $2.2 billion dollars on algae research for the last 35 years and nothing to show for it. Algae has been researched to death at universities for the last 50 years in the US. The problem is as long as the algae researchers can say we are 3-5 years away, its too expensive and they need more research they get the grant money. We need monies going into algae oil production and stop wasting money on research. Algae researchers are incapable of commercializing anything!


  6. Steve Savage

    The government program did indeed spend a lot of money and they were able to run the 3-5 years scam for a long run. The funding today is from venture folks and they are not so patient. I guess we will see how it goes

  7. lewis

    I find it funny when I see words like “second”, “third” generations, implying they are more modern than first generation biofuels.

    It just so happens that these cooler technologies never seem to leave the testing ground!

    Sugarcane, a “first generation” biofuel, has over 30 years of successful track record and was responsible for an entire country to attain its fuel independency (Brazil)

    But noooo, it is a “first” generation remember? It isn´t “cool”! So let us pump more money into algae, cellulosic, penguin manure, kitchen sink gunk, etc biofuels instead! 🙂

  8. Steve Savage

    I know some folks have written off all “first generation biofuels” but I agree with you that sugarcane is a very good option in a place like Brazil. It is just dumb for us to put a tariff on that source, but that is what happens when every state gets two senator regardless of population (Thanks founders!).

    I actually wish that we would strike up a fuel supply relationship with Cuba based on sugarcane – I think that would drive more change than all the decades of the trade boycott and it would give us a substantial source of biofuel.

    The problem with sugarcane is the limitation on where it can be grown. I think we do need options for the temperate zone.
    Hadn’t heard about penguin manure….

  9. Global Patriot

    Your closing comment sums it up perfectly – full life cycle analysis (LCA), if performed properly, will indicate which solutions work best in a particular location.

    The problem we encountered first time around was that bio-fuels were touted as the ultimate solution that could be implemented anywhere and were infinitely scalable.

    We now know that certain methods are inappropriate to implement on a large scale do to conflicts with food production or groundwater supply, but there are many alternatives that work well for different countries.

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