On the federal side, President Obama has allocated $510 million to produce the fuel for military jets and ships and commercial vehicles. And the Army has established the Energy Initiatives Office Task Force, which is charged with figuring out how to meet a 25 percent renewable energy goal by 2025.
A national security issue
Much of the task force's efforts could be directed to biofuels. Oil dependence has long been considered a national security issue. A 2006 report by the Council on Foreign Relations said the United States must manage the consequences of unavoidable dependence on foreign oil. “The longer the delay, the greater will be the subsequent trauma,” the report said.
This week, Obama emphasized the importance of biofuels to energy security, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said, "America's long-term national security depends upon a commercially viable domestic biofuels market."
But it won't be easy. Obama's plan is to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022, with 20 billion gallons coming from advanced biofuels, 15 billion gallons from corn ethanol and one billion gallons from biodiesel.
Biofuel targets by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 2012 are about 9 percent greater than the previous year and show a modest but increasing role for non-corn biofuels. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires that a percentage of fuel sold in the country contain a minimum volume of renewable fuel.
What exactly is biofuel?
Biofuel is a pretty broad category that includes ethanol, biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, gas-tank-ready isobutanol and, depending on how it's classified, algae fuel. But biofuel manufacture requires energy and, like petroleum products and coal, burning it creates greenhouse gases. Similar to natural gas, those emissions aren't as bad, but the distinction marks its green credentials with an asterisk.
Ethanol, which remains a widely used gasoline additive, may have lost some of the momentum it had five years ago, especially that derived from corn. However, research and development appear undeterred.
At the U.S. Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center in Oak Ridge, Tenn., a team of researchers at believe they have "pinpointed the exact, single gene that controls ethanol production capacity in a microorganism." The discovery, officials say, could prove the missing link in developing biomass crops that produce higher concentrations of ethanol at lower costs.
“This discovery is an important step in developing biomass crops that could increase yield of ethanol, lower production costs and help reduce our reliance on imported oil,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a statement.
New biofuel discoveries
Further underlining my premise for acceleration in biofuel development is yet another announcement from the DOE, this time about two promising biofuel production methods. Both are referred to as "drop-in" biofuels technologies because they can directly replace or be used in lieu of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel without alteration to engines.
The National Advanced Biofuels Consortium, which received $35 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to accelerate biofuel development, selected the "technology pathways" for extra attention.
The consortium plans to develop the technologies to a "pilot-ready" stage over the next two years. One of the two methods focuses on converting biomass into sugars that can be biologically and chemically converted into a renewable diesel and is dubbed FLS, for fermentation of lignocellulosic sugars. The second, catalysis of lignocellulosic sugars, or CLS, focuses on converting biomass into sugars that can be chemically and catalytically converted into gasoline and diesel fuel.
Speed is important, partners needed
"Biofuels are an important part of reducing America's dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home," Obama said, adding that the job requires partnering with the private sector to speed development.
Officials said that to accelerate the production of bio-based jet and diesel fuel for military purposes, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Secretary of the Navy Mabus have developed a plan to jointly construct or retrofit several drop-in biofuel plants and refineries.
Oil remains the dominant player
The United States relies on imported oil for 49 percent of its fuel supply, but about half of that comes from the Western Hemisphere with Canada at the top with 25 percent, followed by Venezuela's 10 percent and Mexico's 9 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Some 12 percent of the nation's imports come from Saudi Arabia.
And while U.S. dependence on imported oil has declined since peaking in 2005, the cause can be traced to the recession, improvements in efficiency and various changes in consumer behavior, the EIA says. "At the same time, increased use of domestic biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), and strong gains in domestic production of crude oil and natural gas plant liquids expanded domestic supplies and reduced the need for imports," officials say.
Undoubtedly that biofuel percentage will rise. The next decade will be the test.
At the Advanced Biofuels Markets exhibition and seminars Nov. 8 to Nov. 11, 2011 in San Francisco, the topic will be "How are we going to get from 6.6 million gallons in 2011 to 20 BILLION gallons in 2022?" It will be a good place to learn more than you wanted to know.
Photo: Courtesy greenenergyproject.tk