Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

Bioenergy: Renewable, Sustainable, Attainable

October 19, 2016

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Energy 101 | Biofuels

Happy Bioenergy Day! Today, bioenergy organizations across North America are celebrating the benefits of bioenergy by holding events and open houses in their local communities. Here at the Energy Department we’re celebrating as well, with extra coverage of bioenergy successes and news all month.

Let us tell you a little more about bioenergy! Did you know that we can make transportation fuel and electricity from non-food resources, such as forest trimmings, agricultural waste, grasses, municipal solid waste, and algae? Did you also know we can use these resources to power airplanes? Bioenergy is renewable energy produced from organic matter (called “biomass”) such as plants, which contain energy from sunlight stored as chemical energy. Bioenergy producers can convert this energy into liquid transportation fuel—called “biofuel”—through a chemical conversion process at a biorefinery. Or, they convert this energy into heat and electricity—called “biopower”—through processes such as direct combustion. In the form of biofuel or biopower, bioenergy can power vehicles homes, and even airplanes.

You may be using bioenergy without even knowing it. United Airlines flights in Los Angeles began using biofuel this year produced with a blend of 30% biofuel into traditional jet fuel. AltAir in California produces the biofuel from natural oils and agricultural wastes. Adding on to that, commercial airlines Virgin Atlantic plans to use renewable jet fuel produced by LanzaTech using industrial waste gases starting in 2017. LanzaTech developed its jet fuel technology in partnership with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and in part with funding from the Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO). Biofuel is especially important for airplanes as a renewable energy alternative.

What are the key facts?

  • Bioenergy organizations across North America are celebrating Bioenergy Day on Oct. 19.
  • We can make transportation fuel and electricity from non-food biomass resources, such as forest trimmings, agricultural waste, grasses, municipal solid waste, and algae.
  • The Bioenergy Technologies Office funds research, development, and demonstration projects to help develop sustainable, cost-competitive biofuels and bioproducts.
  • Biofuels, biopower, and bioproducts can help us lower our greenhouse gas emissions, increase U.S. energy security, and create economic opportunities.

Biopower made from wood is already used to supply the electric grid and comprises about 8% of U.S. renewable energy generation, behind hydropower (46%) and wind power (35%), and ahead of solar power (5%). Biopower producers primarily use wood waste products from the agriculture and wood-processing industries.

At gas stations, most gasoline is blended with 10% ethanol, a type of alcohol-based biofuel. Most ethanol in the United States is produced from corn kernels; however, ethanol can also be produced from resources that come from the more sturdy “cellulosic” parts of plants and from municipal solid waste and algae.

BETO is helping cellulosic ethanol become reality by funding research and development projects to make it cost-competitive with petroleum fuels. A few years ago, BETO and the Energy Department’s national laboratories achieved production of cellulosic ethanol that is cost-competitive with petroleum. Now, they are working on scaling-up production for the commercial market. BETO’s research and development also focuses renewable hydrocarbon biofuels for cars that could be a direct substitute for gasoline rather than requiring a blend, like ethanol. Scientists are researching ways to make these biofuels cost-competitive with gasoline to be able to bring them to market.

Petroleum is used to make products we use every day, such as plastics, lubricants, and industrial chemicals. BETO funds projects to develop cost-competitive “bioproducts”—alternatives for these materials that are made from biomass instead of from fossil fuels. Developing bioproducts is part of finding biobased alternatives for the whole barrel of oil. It can also help us improve the cost of biofuels.

Biofuels, biopower, and bioproducts as replacements for fossil fuels can help us lower our greenhouse gas emissions, increase U.S. energy security, and create economic opportunities. Today we’re looking ahead to these benefits that can be increasingly available in the future through bioenergy research and development. Visit BETO’s website to follow our efforts to develop sustainable, cost-competitive biofuels and bioproducts from non-food biomass resources. Follow #BioenergyDay on Twitter and Facebook to see how the nation is celebrating bioenergy today!