Bioeconomy, Bioenergy, Bioproducts
Strengthening Bio-Based Systems to Support Our Nation’s Energy Independence
The Bioeconomy-Bioenergy-Bioproducts science emphasis area supports the expansion of regional production systems for biofuels and bio-based products. The development of non-petroleum-based fuels, power sources, and chemicals are just a few of the products resulting from these research, demonstration, extension, and education programs. These programs foster rural economic development, mitigate the impacts of a changing climate, reduce greenhouse gasses, improve wildlife and pollinator habitat, and improve water quality and food and energy security. NIFA collaborates with and leverages the resources of other federal agencies, such as U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Biomass Research Development Initiative (BRDI), and private sector investments to achieve the objectives of this Science Emphasis Area.
The wood of poplar trees are a good source for biofuels, but the challenge is waiting 10-20 years between harvest cycles. Researchers at University of Washington have reduced harvest time to 2-3 years. Juvenile trees can be planted closer together and trimmed in a way that ensures most of the branches sprout up from the stump. Leaves, bark, and stems are then harvested and manufactured into bio oil and ethanol.
Plant biologists and biochemists from University of California, Berkeley have produced a gold mine of data by sequencing the genome of a type of green algae. The tiny, single-celled organism can be a source of sustainable biofuel. The alga is also an abundant, natural source of the food supplement astaxanthin, an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties that may be useful for treating cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative and inflammatory diseases, diabetes, and obesity.
A major hurdle in the production of biofuels is the sheer volume of biomass that must be harvested, transported, and stored to provide a continuous fuel supply. A University of Kentucky-led research team developed technology to increase the density of biomass bales in crops like switchgrass, corn stover, and wheat straw. Farmers may now sell the material as a value-added product for conversion to biofuels and biochemicals.
New research from Michigan State University shows that farmers and scientists need to protect native plants from diseases emanating from their crops. Diseases from agricultural fields thought to affect only crops may also harm switchgrass, a primary biofuels crop. This basic research highlights the need for science to catch up in understanding how pests of crops influence native plants and bioenergy crops.
Federal regulators of biotechnology, some scientists, and citizens are concerned about potential gene flow from biotech crops crossing over into non-engineered plants. In a bioenergy crop such as switchgrass, University of Tennessee researchers have addressed that concern by engineering plants that do not flower and have sterile seeds and pollen. Project success will advance our technological toolkit and help allay fears of gene flow in engineered crops.
Energy beets are a developing non-food crop that can be an economical source of sugars for biofuel and chemical production. Research at North Dakota State University found that fermentable sugars stored as raw, thick juice have a carbon footprint that is about 30 percent and 50 percent lower than beet and corn grain, respectively. Beet ethanol could enable a GHG reduction of up to 57 percent, qualifying as an advanced biofuel.