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Review of the Research Strategy for Biomass-Derived Transportation Fuels
Development should seriously consider expanding its applied biotechnology and genomics programs to improve feedstock yields, pest resistance, quality, and cropping systems. Although the Office of Fuels Development is well suited to take the lead in these programs, the agency should work in coordination with other government agencies and grant programs (e.g., the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation), international partners, and the forest, agricultural, and biotechnology industries.
Bioethanol production costs include both feedstock development (production, collection, and handling) and conversion processes (pretreatment, fermentation, distillation, pentose conversion, and cellulase production). Because the process of obtaining a liquid fuel from biomass entails several steps, a change in one part of the system can affect other components. For example, as the limits on cellulase enzymespecific activity at the molecular level are better understood, genetic engineering may lead to the development of plant matter more amenable to enzymatic hydrolysis, thus increasing the efficiency of bioethanol manufacturing. An integrated analysis is a useful technique for determining relationships between feedstock development and conversion processes and impacts on total costs for bioethanol. Agricultural and forest residues as well as dedicated energy crops are potential sources of biomass for conversion to ethanol. Because feedstocks can contribute as much as 40 percent to total bioethanol costs, OFD should thoroughly evaluate the logistics and costs of producing, harvesting, collecting, and transporting feedstocks and impacts on processing economics. Furthermore, OFD researchers could use systems modeling to uncover opportunities for small-scale bioethanol processors and exporters of bioethanol conversion technologies.
To determine the best opportunities for major new technology options and cost reductions, OFD should undertake an integrated review of both the feedstock and processing components of its programs.
The Office of Fuels Development should consider developing an integrated systems model that encompasses feedstock development, collection, storage, transport, and biomass processing. This model could reveal opportunities for reducing costs, optimizing synergies among technologies, and prioritizing projects to achieve program goals in light of changing market opportunities.
A strong R&D program will require careful monitoring of its performance. Peer review can be used to evaluate proposed R&D projects and measure performance of ongoing projects. In the case of OFD, peer review can increase the likelihood of the program developing cost-effective technologies for the production of bioethanol. Researchers and program managers should be held accountable for ensuring that their research is directed toward meeting specific performance goals. The committee encourages OFD to continue using outside reviews to evaluate its biofuels programs. To make significant technological progress, OFD should reach out even more than it has in the past for ideas from institutions outside of government laboratories.
The Office of Fuels Development should establish clear criteria for evaluating project performance levels and should include reviewers from academia, industry, and other government programs in its evaluations.