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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.