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America does not have enough biomass
to displace gasoline

REALITY: U.S. lands can produce the ethanol
to displace one-third of petroleum

Biofuels produced from biomass, such as cellulosic ethanol, could replace perhaps as much as a third of the current U.S. demand for transportation fuels with a homegrown, renewable energy source without affecting food production," according to Department of Energy Under Secretary for Science Raymond Orbach.


Field of switchgrass
Field of switchgrass


Technology challenges aside, some critics question whether America realistically has enough biomass to meet such an ambitious goal. A landmark study led by ORNL Senior Research Economist Bob Perlack and funded by DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy sought for the first time to estimate whether America has sufficient biomass to provide needed power, fuels and products.

"We looked at using agricultural residues from major grain crops and the use of some of this land for growing dedicated energy crops, such as switchgrass, poplar and willow," Perlack explains. "In conducting our resource assessment we conditioned all of our estimates subject first to meeting projected demands for food, feed, export and fiber."

Published in 2005, the Billion Ton Study (see ORNL Review Vol. 40, No. 1, 2007, Billion Ton Study) concluded America has approximately 1.3 billion tons of biomass, enough to displace 30% of transportation petroleum with biofuels. Skyrocketing global oil prices and accelerated corn-based ethanol production since then have motivated an update, forthcoming this fall. The new report will assess economics and policies in addition to resources and focus on 2007-2030, as contrasted with the long-term period (2025-2050) probed in the original study. —Dawn Levy


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