Industrial Biotechnology and the Future of Ethanol Production

Industrial biotechnology takes the biotech tools developed to fight disease and cure illness and applies them to the greatest challenges in industrial manufacturing, chemical synthesis, and renewable energy production. Industrial biotech companies use micro-organisms (microbes) and specialized proteins (enzymes) to develop new "biobased" products from renewable agricultural sources, and to make traditional manufacturing processes cleaner and greener. Industrial biotechnology is the key enabling technology for production of ethanol from all renewable feedstocks:

  • Recent advances in enzymes and fermentation microbes have improved the efficiency of corn ethanol production substantially:

    • Ethanol yields per bushel of corn have increased 20% from 2.5 gallons/bushel in 2000 to nearly 3.0 gallons/bushel today

    • New "no cook" enzymes have now been developed to extract the sugars in corn at room temperature, greatly reducing energy inputs and further improving the cost and environmental profile of ethanol from corn starch.

  • Ethanol production from cellulosic biomass (such as corn stalks, wheat straw, or switchgrass) is now on the cusp of commercial production thanks to dramatic advances in the development of cellulase enzymes. Industrial biotech companies have reduced the cost of cellulase enzymes 30-fold since 2001 from over $5 per gallon of ethanol to under $0.20 per gallon.

  • A 2005 joint USDA/DOE study concludes that the United States could produce 60 billion gallons of ethanol by 2030 through a combination of grain and cellulosic feedstocks - enough to replace 30% of projected U.S. gasoline demand - without harming food, feed or fiber production ("Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry," USDA/DOE, April 2005). 60 billion gallons of biofuels:

    • is enough to fill 6 million tanker trucks

    • would be enough to fuel over 100 million automobiles for a year, if used as E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline blend) fuel

    • would eliminate roughly 5 super-tankers (such as the Exxon Valdez) of imported crude oil each day - nearly 2000 shipments a year.

  • A new analysis commissioned by BIO found that existing supplies of corn stover and cereal straw could supply 200 million tons of sustainable cellulosic feedstock within 3 to 5 years, enough to triple current ethanol production ("Achieving Sustainable Production of Agricultural Biomass for Biorefinery Feedstock", BIO, Nov. 2006).

  • Collection and delivery of agricultural residues will require substantial investment in supply infrastructure, including new planting and one-pass harvest equipment, an enhanced rail freight network, and greater adoption of no-till cropping. Farmers can expect to recover much of their necessary investment through residue sales - a 1,000-acre farm could expect to recover additional costs in as little as 2 years - but government support is also needed to speed development.

  • New markets that commoditize the environmental benefits of no-till farming could provide even greater incentive for farmers to convert to no-till cropping with residue collection. New mandatory greenhouse gas limits in California and the Northeast could help farmers earn $10 per acre or more from the sale of carbon credits.

  • Processing just 30 percent of U.S. corn stover into biofuels would reduce net U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 90 to 150 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, enough to:

    • offset the CO2 emissions of 10 typical 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power plants

    • more than offset recent annual growth in emissions from all sectors of the U.S. economy.

  • A recent study from the University of Tennessee ("25% Renewable Energy for the United States by 2025: Agricultural and Economic Impacts", Nov. 2006) found that:

    • Producing 25% of America's energy from agricultural resources would generate in excess of $700 billion annually in economic activity, create 5.1 million jobs, and add $180 billion to net farm income by 2025

    • Improved market prices for corn and other feedstock crops will produce an estimated cumulative savings in government farm payments of $15 billion.

  • An analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that an investment of $1 billion in R&D and demonstration should cut the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol in half by 2015, saving consumers $20 billion per year in fuel costs by 2050 ("Growing Energy", NRDC 2004).