Matt Johnston, from the University of Minnesota and his colleagues have produced a global map that identifies areas of low-yielding biofuel crops whose productivity could be increased through intensification opening a new set of questions and issues.

The map shows that there is huge potential for increasing biofuel production without increasing its area footprint.  However, the team also points out that even if all areas are brought up to median levels of intensification, there would still not be enough production to meet the US biofuels target for 2022, let alone the global target.

Maize Area Fraction Global Map. Click image for more info.

Johnson is quoted at environmentalresearchweb saying, “The US biofuels target for 2022 is 136 billion liters. Even if all countries across the globe were to increase yields for all 20 of the crops in our study simply to median levels of what was possible in the year 2000, we estimate that global biofuel production could be brought up to only 121 billion liters. This re-affirms the urgent need for next-generation biofuels because agricultural biofuels alone cannot meet the global need.”

The Minnesota team uses M3 cropland datasets, then calculated median yields and yield gaps for 10 ethanol and 10 biodiesel crops. They produced both global and individual results for 238 countries, territories and protectorates.

The team’s paper in Environmental Research Letters uses 157 counties for the data set.

Where this report and map differ is the team used a new, data-driven approach based on existing reported yields and cultivated area.  This is a hard reality check to compare with the plant physiology and optimal interception of solar radiation to determine maximum physiological production potential.  It’s a theory comparison to practical application.  And it’s a wake up call to those promising a big biofuel conversion based on the theorization of what can be produced.

The study gets much closer to “on the ground” kind of analysis.  For example the team looked at more than 1200 country/crop combinations to pinpoint which crops in which countries could benefit most from intensification of farming practices.  They calculated that in Macedonia 28,900 hectares are currently used for maize production. If the productivity of 20,800 of these hectares was brought up to global median levels, the country could produce an extra 36.2 million liters of ethanol.  If Honduras was to intensify just 9,800 hectares of its 46,500 hectare sugarcane production, it could produce an extra 48.8 million liters of ethanol.

Johnson continues, “Our map identifies concentrated areas of low-yielding agriculture that might benefit from targeted implementations of modern agricultural practices. We hope that it will help researchers and policymakers to more accurately understand spatial variation of yield and agricultural intensification potential. We also hope that our study will help policymakers to better use existing infrastructure and optimize the distribution of development and aid capital so that responsible intensification might be promoted over further expansion of agriculture.”

The team’s paper is a worthwhile contribution to the discussion about biofuel production.  Keeping in mind that the study covers current land use and current crops, the effect is to have a close up timeframe look at the practical and possible.  The technologies are all in place.  New technology isn’t considered.  The point that could be made from the study results are these increases are “at hand” and the capital costs and education to employ them is far more easily accomplished that a new crop and processing chains.

The team makes clear in the results section saying, “We are not claiming that biofuels should not be pursued at scale volumes, simply that policy-makers need to set realistic expectations for offsetting the demand for petroleum fuels. Not surprisingly, much of the new potential for biofuel production from intensification is located in developing countries and former Soviet Union states. Of the 112.5 billion liters of ethanol potential, only 9.4 billion liters ( ~ 8%) are located in developed countries (as classified by the United Nations). At  ~  25% (or 2.1 billion liters), developed countries hold a higher fraction of overall 8.5 billion liters of biodiesel production potential, however, yield gaps in developing countries are still considerably greater. The growth potential from agricultural biofuels is clearly limited in developed countries that already employ high yielding, modern agricultural practices, such as the United States—which explains the shift in research and development dollars towards next-generation, non-food feedstocks and agricultural wastes in most developed countries.”

Education and capital are going to matter – but the wealth creation would be astounding.

The Minnesota team has made a huge dataset available for perusal.  This link takes one to a zip file of the full results.

This team seems to pour cold water over some of the large projections for biofuels, but those projections don’t distinguish between what is land and technology in hand and the technologies of tomorrow.  We have to keep that difference in mind.

One very important point isn’t made – new technology has to be funded, pressed further and taken to scale – because the supplies will be needed.  Those kinds of investments look much safer than thought before the study was published.

Thanks to the Minnesota team for the reality check.


1 Comment so far

  1. Al Fin on October 17, 2011 3:46 PM

    Very interesting and useful, in terms of agricultural biofuels of yesterday, today, and the next few years. Almost all of the 20 crops studied are food crops.

    The study appears to ignore biomass from agriculture, forestry, ranching, industrial waste, municipal waste, macro- and micro-algae, etc. Yet by the year 2022, fuels from biomass will probably outstrip fuels from food crops.

    In other words, by focusing on the technology of yesterday (ethanol and esterified biodiesel), the authors may have produced a document that will be largely irrelevant in its target year of 2022.

    As you say, Brian, technology must be financed, developed, and scaled. And fortunately that is happening for biomass pyrolysis, biomass gasification, biomass digestion to methane, and biomass fermentation to ethanol and butanol.

    For synthetic biology fuels, Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics is being funded over $500 million from Exxon, and Khosla’s synthetic biology venture fund has $1 billion in it.

    It is good for these academics to compile information so that we know where we are with food crop fuels and yesterday’s fuel production technology. It is good that their estimates are conservative so as to avoid wild speculation.

    But their projections are unlikely to bear any resemblance to where we will be with biofuels in 2022, IMHO.

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