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Meeting the Grand Challenge for Cellulosic Biofuels

October 16, 2017
Last week, Dartmouth Professor Lee Lynd published a new commentary in Nature Biotechnology, titled "The grand challenge of cellulosic biofuels." Lynd has made lasting contributions to the industrial biotechnology field, developing technology for consolidated biomass processing into biofuels. He has also had experience in commercializing cellulosic biofuels, via Mascoma and Enchi Corporation.

Lynd insists there is still a pressing need to develop cellulosic biofuels. The remaining challenges can be overcome, according to Lynd, but "it is time to see cellulosic biofuels as they are," he writes.

The new commentary details the waning of support for cellulosic biofuels since 2009. That lack of support has undercut investment in the sector. In 2016, the amount of U.S. cellulosic ethanol production capacity that shut down exceeded the amount added, Lynd points out, citing data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Lynd proposes several solutions to the grand challenge. First, pursue commercial development of cellulosic biofuels in small, incremental steps, he recommends.  Second, maximize the benefits of cellulosic technology through an iterative process of learning by doing, using readily available feedstocks. To some extent, that is already happening. Ethanol producers are beginning to deploy technology for corn kernel cellulosics. Last, Lynd recommends, continue investing in new processing technologies, rather than continuing to rely on the current technologies.

One challenge that Lynd does not address in the commentary, though, is EPA's ongoing effort to rewrite the Renewable Fuel Standard program. For 2018, EPA has proposed to reduce advanced, cellulosic and biomass based diesel fuel use well below previous standards. EPA is looking to set the baseline for future use of these fuels as low as possible. The ongoing instability EPA is introducing into the program will continue the pattern of cellulosic biofuel production capacity shutting down and investment going elsewhere.