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Biofuels: Ready to Fly into the Future

Posted by Justin Bredlau, PhD, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, Office of the Chief Scientist and William Goldner, PhD, Senior Advisor for Renewable Energy, Natural Resources, and Environment, Office of the Chief Scientist in Climate Energy Research and Science
Sep 13, 2021
Plane being fueled with SAF

Imagine flying from Los Angeles to the Washington, D.C. region on a plane fueled with American farm products or forestry waste. Sounds farfetched? Well, it is already becoming a reality. Thanks to U.S. production of sustainable aviation fuel, airlines can help address climate change and create rural jobs by using this fuel option. That’s why USDA, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Energy announced a “Grand Challenge” to support the production of 35 billion gallons of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) per year by 2050.

The Grand Challenge is a government-wide effort to reduce costs, enhance sustainability, and expand production and use of SAF to meet 100% of U.S. aviation fuel demand by 2050. Produced from sustainable or renewable sources, this fuel works with existing infrastructure and can be mixed with petroleum-based fuels.

USDA has a crucial role in SAF research. One main challenge is sustainably producing enough biomass feedstock at the right price for conversion to SAF. Another challenge is ensuring that the carbon and environmental modeling associated with fuel appropriately accounts for conservation practices used on American farms producing feedstock. To address these challenges, USDA is investing in research to develop energy cane, short-rotation woody crops, oilseeds and dedicated biomass crops like perennial grasses. These crops can be used as cover to improve soil quality, as buffer strips to reduce nutrient runoff into watersheds, or as byproducts for animal feed. Additionally, biomass supply chains and biorefineries centered around regional feedstocks create jobs in rural communities.

Many USDA agencies have roles in sustainable aviation fuel development and commercial deployment. USDA is working with our colleagues across the federal government to develop strategies to achieve this new, joint initiative.

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Evan Karatzas
Sep 14, 2021

Hi Justin,

thanks for the article, im curious in your view which of the crops do you think is most immediately ready for biofuel use from the ones you mentioned being energy cane, short-rotation woody crops, oilseeds and perennial grasses.
From my understanding it seems Carinata oilseeds are already being used by Sasol for biofuels but I would be keen to get your thoughts on which is most ready and also on Carinata as a biofueld as well.

Ben Weaver
Sep 15, 2021

@Evan Karatzas - thank you for your comment. Multiple regional biofuel crops, as well as waste materials and forest residues, will be necessary to meet the SAF grand challenge. Several of these current and new biofuel feedstocks are likely to be commercialized and scaled-up around the same time. USDA is supporting several potential feedstocks through Regional Bioenergy System Coordinated Agricultural Projects and other internal USDA research. Oilseeds, including carinata, and other lipid sources have great potential for early scale-up due to the efficiency of the conversion process. The vast majority of SAF that is currently being commercially produced is from fats, oils, and greases and oil from oilseed crops. Other types of feedstocks and conversion pathways, such as those using lignocellulosic biomass and woody biomass, are being developed.