Biofuels are an important element in broader strategies to replace petroleum in transportation fuels like gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. The idea is that biofuels recycle carbon by getting it from growing plants rather than from fossil sources. The biggest problem with biofuels is that they cost more than conventional petroleum fuels, so there is economic incentive to keep burning the fossil fuels.
One strategy to make biofuels cost competitive is to have the plants provide additional economic benefits beyond being a feedstock for fuel. This in principle can be done by engineering plants to produce valuable chemical compounds, or bioproducts, as they grow. Bioproducts include such things as flavoring agents and fragrances as well as biodegradable plastic. These bioproducts can be extracted from the plants and then the remaining plant material can be converted to fuel.
Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently published a study to determine what quantities of bioproducts plants need to produce to result in cost-effective biofuel production.
The study looked at a compound called limonene, which is used for flavoring and fragrance. They calculated that if this compound was accumulated at 0.6% of the biomass dry weight, it would offer net economic benefits to biorefineries. This corresponds to recovering 130 pounds of limonene from 10 tons of sorghum on an acre of land.
Such quantities are completely practical but, on the other hand, none of these substances are needed in huge quantities. Just six refineries could supply the world with limonene. So, fuel crops would need to be engineered to produce a broad range of bioproducts to enable a viable cost-effective biofuel industry.
Making Biofuels Cheaper by Putting Plants to Work
Photo, posted September 28, 2019, courtesy of Michele Dorsey Walfred via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.