U.S. Department of Energy - Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Bioenergy Technologies Office

Bioenergy FAQs

  1. How do the benefits compare to the development challenges posed by advanced biofuels?
  2. How much gasoline and diesel are displaced by the nearly 15 billion gallons of biofuels that we currently produce? What is the value of the imports displaced?
  3. How much gasoline and diesel can we displace with biofuels in years to come?
  4. How much biomass can we sustainably produce here in the United States?
  5. How will we efficiently grow, collect, transport, and convert the bulky, dispersed biomass required for cellulosic biofuels?
  6. Why aren't more farmers collecting agricultural residue or growing crops to make biofuels right now?
  7. Can we use municipal solid waste and other urban wastes to produce fuel?
  8. What is the Department of Energy doing to help the U.S. bioindustry ramp up production of advanced biofuels?
  9. When will we see substantial commercial production of cellulosic ethanol and hydrocarbon biofuels?

1. How do the benefits compare to the development challenges posed by advanced biofuels?

Advanced biofuels will help to provide benefits that are of strategic importance to the United States, including economic growth, energy security, environmental quality, and technology leadership. To achieve these valuable benefits, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is working in partnership with industry, academia, and the national laboratories to clarify the science on biofuels; develop, improve, and demonstrate the needed technology; and increase sustainable biofuel production—thus lowering the technical and economic risks.

Biofuels are part of a multi-faceted national strategy to reduce climate impacts and build a diverse and secure domestic U.S. energy supply. Domestic biofuels help to reduce U.S. reliance on imports, improve our trade balance, stabilize fuel prices, revitalize rural communities, create jobs, maintain our lead in science and innovation, strengthen our energy security, and reduce carbon emissions. To achieve these benefits, the government supports the sustainable development and conversion of  biomass resources into advanced biofuels, including renewable gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Biofuels are the only renewable substitute for petroleum-based liquid transportation fuels available in the near term.

Economic Benefits: Biofuels are truly home-grown fuels. Biofuel feedstocks are produced by U.S. farmers and other landowners, generating jobs and other economic activity across rural America. The money that the United States spends on the research, development, and use of biofuels recirculates in our economy, providing economic and trade benefits. In monetary terms, today's ethanol displaces about $24 billion worth of gasoline each year (assuming a wholesale gasoline price of $2.63 per gallon). Several reports (referenced below) also indicate that increased U.S. ethanol production and consumption have helped to suppress gasoline prices—a significant economic benefit to all Americans.

Energy Security: In 2010, half of all liquid fuel used in the U.S was imported. While imports have been dropping, they remain significant. Reliance on imported oil makes our country vulnerable to supply disruptions and potentially severe price fluctuations. Development and use of biofuels helps to reduce our exposure to such risks, diversify our domestic energy supply, and enhance our energy resilience.

Carbon Emissions: To assess the life-cycle impacts of biofuels on carbon emissions, biofuels must be credited with all of the carbon dioxide captured and stored as the biomass grows—as well as any emissions during harvest, conversion, distribution, and use. On this basis, ethanol is already helping to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. Relative to regular gasoline, today's corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than 20%. Cellulosic ethanol made from agricultural byproducts (such as corn stover) has the potential to reduce GHG emissions by more than 100% relative to gasoline, if the lignin byproduct is burned to produce steam for the production process or electricity for the grid. Other advanced biofuels (hydrocarbon fuels) show similar, promising net GHG benefits.

Sustainability and Environment: Biofuels pose a substantially lower risk to the environment than the fossil fuel-based products they replace. For example, using ethanol as a gasoline oxygenate avoids the need for a toxic additive used in gasoline (Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether), and biofuels avoid the environmental risks associated with drilling. Biomass resources can also be managed sustainably by following such practices as returning sufficient nutrients to the soil and allowing adequate time for plant regeneration between harvests.

Scientists are studying the risk that increased production of biofuels could lead to land-use changes and a consequent increase in GHG emissions. Significant uncertainties about this issue remain, and DOE is committed to working with stakeholders to build greater consensus across the scientific and environmental communities regarding biofuel sustainability, carbon emissions, and land-use impacts.

All research and development efforts funded through DOE focus on non-food feedstocks, such as cellulosic biomass and algae. Concerns that biofuels could contribute to global food shortages or inflate food prices are being analyzed by federal and state agencies to clarify causal factors and mitigate such impacts. According to a Federal Reserve paper published in March 2009, only 12% of the rise in the food price index from June 2006 to June 2008 could be attributed to biofuels production. Specifically, about 88% of that price increase was due to factors other than biofuels, including rising oil prices, increased demand, speculative activities in futures markets, droughts in key agricultural regions, and the industrialization and urbanization of Asia. Moreover, a number of biomass conversion technologies now supported through DOE cost sharing rely on biomass waste or agricultural residues, reducing or eliminating these concerns.

DOE research currently focuses on the production of advanced biofuels that can directly substitute for todays gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Biomass resources for these fuels include algae as well as a broad range of yard, forest, and agricultural residues that can be collected without adverse effects on traditional crops or markets.

Technology Leadership: Breakthroughs in bioconversion technologies and successes in scaling up technologies for commercial operations promote U.S. leadership in global clean energy technology. Advances can provide benefits in such related areas as agricultural production and food processing. Investments in bioprocessing will also help to reduce production costs, improve process and product reliability, and increase profitability. U.S. leadership in this growing sector will improve competitiveness in global markets.

For more information, please review the following reports and press releases:

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2. How much gasoline and diesel are displaced by the nearly 15 billion gallons of biofuels that we currently produce? What is the value of the imports displaced?

Taking into account the lower energy content of some biofuels, the 15 billion gallons of biofuels currently produced displace approximately 10 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel—worth an estimated $27 billion.

In 2012, the roughly 15 billion gallons of biofuels produced in the U.S. included approximately 13.6 billion gallons of ethanol and 1.2 billion gallons of biodiesel.

Given that the energy content of ethanol is approximately 33% lower than that of conventional gasoline for equal volumes of fuel, 13.6 billion gallons of ethanol displaces approximately 9.1 billion gallons of gasoline. Assuming the October 2013 wholesale gasoline price of $2.63 per gallon, the dollar value of gasoline displaced by ethanol is approximately $23.9 billion.

The energy content of biodiesel is approximately 7% lower than that of petroleum-derived diesel fuel. Taking into account the difference in energy content, 1.2 billion gallons of biodiesel displaces approximately 1.1 billion gallons of petroleum-derived diesel. Assuming the October 2013 wholesale diesel price of $3.01, the value of diesel displaced by biodiesel is approximately $3.2 billion.

For more information, please review the following reports and press releases:

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3. How much gasoline and diesel can we displace with biofuels in years to come?

The amount and value of petroleum-derived fuels that biofuels can displace in the future depend on the level of investments and other factors that are hard to predict—but the potential U.S. biomass resource provides an upper bound that exceeds the volume of U.S. gas consumption in 2012.

Using the 2011 Billion-Ton Update report to define biomass resource availability and assuming a yield of 85 gallons per ton of biomass, the United States has the potential to produce between 90 billion gallons and 135 billion gallons of biofuels per year. Note that the high end of this estimate exceeds the volume of U.S. gasoline consumption in 2011 and 2012 (134 billion gallons).

For more information, please review the following reports and press releases:

4. How much biomass can we sustainably produce here in the United States?

A 2011 study found that the United States could produce enough biomass to displace 30% of our current national petroleum consumption. The country can potentially grow more than enough biomass resources to meet the biofuel production requirements of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

According to the 2011 U.S. Billion-Ton Update report sponsored by DOE, the U.S. could sustainably produce approximately 1.1–1.6 billion dry tons of biomass annually by the year 2030, while continuing to meet the demands for food, feed, and fiber. This quantity of biomass could be used to produce enough biofuels to displace more than 30% of the country's current petroleum consumption and would satisfy biofuels production requirements in the RFS. Of the nation's total biomass potential, 328 million tons would come from forest resources, and the balance (766 million–1,305 million tons) from agricultural resources (under the high-yield scenario).

The estimated biomass potential available from various sources at $60 per dry ton or less by 2030 breaks down as follows:

  • Forest resources currently used: 226 million tons
  • Additional forest resource potential: 102 million tons
  • Agricultural resources currently used: 103 million tons
  • Additional agricultural resource potential: 265 million–404 million tons
  • Energy crops: 400 million–799 million tons.

This amount of biomass (which includes residues in each resource category) can be produced sustainably from agricultural and forestry lands and from other waste streams.

Assumptions used in the analysis significantly affect estimates of the potentially available biomass feedstock. Higher prices naturally increase the financial feasibility of producing more feedstocks. In addition, the assumed productivity increases for agricultural and dedicated energy crops can affect these estimates.

Note: In the baseline scenario, the average annual corn yield increase is assumed to be approximately 1%, and the energy crop yield increase is assumed to be 1% annually. In the high-yield scenario, the average annual corn yield increase is approximately 2%, and the energy crop productivity increase is 2%–4% annually.

For more information, please review the following reports and press releases:

5. How will we efficiently grow, collect, transport, and convert the bulky, dispersed biomass required for cellulosic biofuels?

DOE and its partners are working to increase yields and produce biomass of consistently high quality to facilitate its use in producing cellulosic biofuels. DOE is engaged in developing efficient systems for the large-scale harvesting, collection, preprocessing, storage, and transport of biomass feedstocks as a reliable commodity for use in biorefineries.

The U.S. bioindustry will need large quantities of high-quality cellulosic biomass that can be harvested and transported to biorefineries in an economical and reliable manner. DOE is working with diverse partners to overcome two major challenges in this area:

  1. Optimizing cellulosic feedstocks for biofuels. To enable large-scale production of cost-competitive cellulosic biofuels, researchers are working with selected plant varieties (not used for food, feed, or fiber production) to increase their yields, minimize water and fertilizer requirements, and optimize other critical properties that will facilitate their use in conversion processes. DOE is working closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to accelerate plant breeding programs and improve biomass feedstocks by characterizing the genes, proteins, and molecular interactions that influence biomass yields. DOE is also examining advanced preprocessing approaches to increase the biofuel yield per unit of feedstock. These efforts will assist each region of the country in selecting the best feedstocks for sustainable biofuels production, potentially making use of marginal lands that are not well suited for agriculture.
  2. Developing efficient feedstock logistics systems. Biomass resources can vary widely in terms of density, moisture content, flowability, and other characteristics. The current vision is for multiple biomass feedstocks (residues and herbaceous or woody energy crops) to be preprocessed into a consistent, dense, and flowable format that meets the specification requirements of biorefineries. This approach makes the biomass compatible with existing high-capacity handling systems, like those currently used for grain and other commodities. DOE has partnered with teams from industry and academia to design and demonstrate novel systems that can harvest, collect, preprocess, transport, store, and deliver large quantities of biomass resources to biorefineries. These systems are undergoing rigorous, industrial-scale field testing to establish cost and productivity benefits. DOE also supported development of a Biomass Feedstock Process Demonstration Unit (operated at Idaho National Laboratory), which is used to evaluate advanced feedstock supply systems in terms of commodity-scale performance metrics and conversion criteria. 

6. Why aren't more farmers collecting agricultural residue or growing energy crops to make biofuels right now?

As in other industries, farmers need to be fairly certain that there will be an adequate demand for a product before they go into production. Farmers and other biomass producers are unlikely to see a significant, sustained demand for cellulosic feedstocks until more biorefineries begin producing cellulosic biofuels at commercial scale for U.S. markets.

From a farmer's perspective, collecting agricultural residues for biofuels represents a shorter-term and less risky investment than growing dedicated energy crops. Essentially, agricultural residues offer farmers a way to supplement revenue from their main crops at the end of the growing season; the key decision is whether the near-term market justifies the collection effort—though farmers will also consider the extent to which the residues are needed to protect and replenish the soil. By contrast, dedicated energy crops require a farmer to commit some land in advance of the growing season—when weather conditions and market prices are less predictable. Their investment risk is even greater in the case of crops that may need more than one season to become established and begin producing profitable yields.

Some technologies for converting agricultural residues and other biomass into cellulosic biofuels require further research and development to lower costs. Until commercial production of advanced biofuels ramps up to generate adequate demand, farmers have no financial incentive or reason to start producing or collecting cellulosic feedstocks (such as switchgrass or corn stover). To enhance the commercial viability of dedicated energy crops, additional research is also underway to increase yields, improve feedstock qualities, and facilitate collection.

Cellulosic biofuels will become commercially feasible when producers can sell them at a price that is cost-competitive with conventional fossil fuels. DOE is providing financial support to several pioneer-scale biorefinery projects to help industry ramp up promising production technologies from the demonstration scale and explore ways to reduce costs. In addition, systems for harvesting, collecting, storing, preprocessing, and transporting cellulosic feedstocks are being developed.

Scores of large, commercial-scale biorefineries will need to be brought on-line to meet national production goals. While these refineries will create demand for cellulosic biomass feedstocks, obtaining private-sector financing for these multimillion dollar, commercial-scale facilities poses a major hurdle to industry expansion.

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7. Can we use municipal solid waste and other urban wastes to produce biofuels?

Yes, like other cellulosic feedstocks, portions of urban waste streams can be used to produce biofuels.

Urban waste streams contain a variety of biomass materials that could potentially be converted into biofuels. The woody components of these waste streams, including construction and demolition wood waste, currently hold the greatest potential as biofuel feedstocks. A 2011 study by DOE determined that the United States currently has the potential to produce 473 million dry tons of biomass each year. Of this total, 53 million tons—or 11.2%—could potentially come from municipal solid waste, yard and tree trimmings, and construction and demolition debris. In July 2013, BETO partner INEOS New Planet BioEnergy began producing cellulosic ethanol and renewable power from vegetative and wood wastes. The facility is expected to output 8 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol and 6 MW of renewable power annually.

For more information, please review the following reports and press releases:

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8. What is DOE doing to help the U.S. bioindustry ramp up production of advanced biofuels?

To accelerate industry progress in meeting legislated targets for biofuels, DOE has invested more than $1 billion in research, development, and demonstration projects to improve and scale up low-cost biomass conversion technologies and to ensure a reliable supply of high-quality commodity feedstocks for conversion.

BETO conducts multi-faceted research to help the U.S. bioindustry meet statutory targets for biofuels production. Projects focus on (1) developing biomass resources as a reliable, affordable commodity for commercial-scale conversion; (2) developing cost-effective technologies to convert cellulosic biomass into renewable fuels for commercial markets; and (3) demonstrating promising conversion technologies at various scales to reduce technical risk.

Feedstock supply: Achieving the RFS targets is contingent on the availability of a sufficient and reliable supply of affordable, high-quality biomass feedstocks, such as agricultural residues, wood waste, dedicated energy crops, algae, and other materials. To that end, BETO is working to develop cost-effective, integrated systems for harvesting, storing, preprocessing, and transporting a variety of sustainable biomass feedstocks. Researchers are investigating ways to optimize these feedstock supply systems to reduce transport and storage costs while improving conversion efficiency.

Conversion technologies: BETO invests in next-generation technologies that can convert a variety of domestic biomass feedstocks into biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower. Through this research, DOE seeks to increase the efficiency and lower the cost of converting biomass into commercially viable biofuels that can serve as replacements for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. The conversion pathways under investigation include thermochemical technologies, such as pyrolysis and gasification, and biochemical technologies that incorporate enzymes, fermentation, and other biological processes. Researchers are also exploring synthetic biological processing and hybrid approaches.

Demonstration and Deployment: BETO is partnering with industry on integrated biorefinery projects to validate first-of-a-kind technologies at pilot, demonstration, and pioneer-commercial scales. By reducing technical and economic risks in the production of advanced biofuels, these projects are intended to foster private-sector investment in commercial-scale biorefineries.

BETO partners with other DOE offices and federal agencies to accelerate large-scale production of biofuels. Interagency efforts in bioenergy are coordinated through the Biomass Research and Development Board. Key partners include USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, Department of Defense, and National Science Foundation. Within DOE, the following offices play key roles in achieving the RFS goals:

  • ARPA-E funds high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are at stages of development deemed too early for private-sector investment.
  • Office of Science
    • Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program advances world-class biological and environmental research programs and scientific user facilities to support DOE's energy, environment, and basic research missions.
    • Basic Energy Sciences (BES) program supports fundamental research to understand, predict, and ultimately control matter and energy at the electronic, atomic, and molecular levels to provide the foundations for new energy technologies and to support DOE missions in energy, environment, and national security.
  • Loan Programs Office guarantees loans to eligible clean energy projects to accelerate the domestic commercial deployment of innovative and advanced clean energy technologies.

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9. When will we see substantial commercial production of cellulosic ethanol and hydrocarbon biofuels?

INEOS New Planet BioEnergy began production at its Indian River BioEnergy Center near Vero Beach, Florida, in July 2013. This pioneer-scale facility has the capacity to produce 8 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year and 6 MW of renewable power. With financial assistance from DOE and a loan guarantee from USDA, the facility is proving a novel conversion technology to lower the financial and technical risks for investors—as required to grow the industry. Two more pioneer commercial-scale biorefineries receiving financial assistance from DOE are expected to come online in 2014. Looking ahead, biomass prices and economic conditions will greatly influence the pace at which additional cellulosic biorefineries are built.

DOE is working with industry to bring cellulosic ethanol production to market and to accelerate the development of drop-in hydrocarbon biofuels for the future. DOE focuses on lowering conversion costs, demonstrating promising conversion processes, and scaling up for commercial deployment. Progress toward commercializing advanced biofuels involves first-of-a-kind, high-risk projects that integrate multiple novel technologies. While some advanced biorefineries have been launched with private funding, continued DOE support is essential to reduce the technological risk and help establish an adequate number of pioneer commercial plants.

In 2012, after more than a decade of research and development, DOE and its partners in industry and the national laboratories validated (at pilot scale) the modeled cost target for making ethanol from cellulosic biomass (plant materials not used for food, feed, or fiber production). This achievement opened the door for private industry to pursue commercial production with the expectation that cellulosic ethanol could be produced at a competitive cost.

In July 2013, INEOS New Planet BioEnergy began producing cellulosic ethanol at its Indian River BioEnergy Center near Vero Beach, Florida. The facility has the capacity to produce 8 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol and 6 MW of renewable power each year from vegetative, yard, and wood wastes. The facility uses a hybrid thermochemical/fermentation conversion technology based on university research that was awarded a DOE Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant in 1993. DOE invested $5 million in the further scale-up of this promising technology over the next 15 years. INEOS purchased the technology in 2008, and in 2009 DOE awarded INEOS New Planet BioEnergy a $50-million grant to design, construct, commission, and operate this first-of-its-kind facility.

Two other pioneer biorefineries receiving DOE cost-shared funding are now under construction and expected to start producing commercial-scale volumes of cellulosic ethanol in 2014:

  • Abengoa Bioenergy's cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton, Kansas (25 million gallons per year)
  • POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels' "Project Liberty" in Emmetsburg, Iowa (20 million gallons per year).

U.S. industry has constructed a small number of commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facilities without federal funds (e.g., KIOR, Inc's thermochemical processing biorefinery in Columbus, Mississippi, which began production in early 2013).

DOE now supports a total of 25 active biorefinery projects (from pilot to pioneer scale). The portfolio includes projects to produce cellulosic ethanol as well as projects to produce renewable hydrocarbon fuels. 

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