The Future of Biofuels

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Secretary Chu discusses why feedstock grasses such as miscanthus could be the future of biofuels.
Secretary Steven Chu
Energy Department Video

SECRETARY STEVEN CHU:  This is a photograph of a perennial grass called miscanthus.  It was grown without irrigation, without fertilizer.  And in the autumn, you just shave it off.  You use that to convert it to ethanol.  The amount of ethanol in this particular plot of land outside the University of Illinois produces 15 times more ethanol than a similar plot of land if you grew corn, and the energy inputs are far less.

So we need to develop methods in order to use these grassy, woody substances and also agricultural waste – wheat straw, rice straw, corn stover.  There are many – and lumber wastes – much of the agricultural waste is being thrown away, burned or put in landfill.  That can be converted to transportation fuel.

Already research has shown – research actually sponsored by the Department of Energy has enabled people to reprogram yeast and bacteria with entire metabolic pathways that allow the yeast to convert simple sugars into diesel-like fuel, gasoline-like fuel, jet-like fuel.  And it just self-separates from the water.  The yields are quite low, and so – but this only took six months to reprogram the yeast.  And so hopefully in the next five years or so one can up the yields to commercial scale.  I don’t know if it’ll work, but there’s a shot.

And the quality of the scientists now doing this work are extraordinary.  And it’s really the quality of these people that give me a lot of hope.