Reflections on the 2014 Bioeconomy Conference and the Future of Biofuels

After another successful Bioeconomy Conference last week, Professor Zilberman shares the latest cutting-edge research from the presentations as well as the direction of the biofuels and biotechnology. Stay tuned for video clips from the conference presentations and exclusive interviews with speakers! 


Dear Alumni,

As you know, every year we have a bioeconomy conference, where we invite leading thinkers in this field to UC Berkeley for two days. The basic idea behind the bioeconomy is that the transition to a sustainable system requires moving away from nonrenewable resources, like coal and oil, to sustainable forms of energy, like solar and biofuels. Additionally we have to move from chemistry based on petrochemicals to one based on biological innovations. In order to be able to produce biofuels and other biochemicals, we need to enhance our productivity so that we don't compromise the welfare of the poor by only allocating resources to produce biochemicals and fuels for the rich. The bioeconomy is about combining better use of biological resources.

The notion of the bioeconomy is not new. There is an old bioeconomy that relies on fermentation; wine and alcohol are bioeconomy products. They serve both as food, health products and fuels. We have cheeses and processed foods. These are all examples of fermentation. New discoveries in science, such as DNA manipulation and other processes, allow us to expand the scope of biological innovations. The bioeconomy conference addresses issues of biofuels, biotechnology and green chemistry.

In US and Europe, biofuels have existed for about ten years. Today ten percent of the gasoline in the US is produced from corn ethanol. In the first few years, the introduction of corn ethanol increased the price of food significantly and was the cause of the main concern. However, the price of corn has since declined and some of our presenters expect the price of corn will drop even further. It seems that this trend of declining biofuel prices will continue in the US and we might even return to the days when corn farmers were subsidized.

The main potential for ethanol in the world is in Brazil where you can grow forty million hectares of sugarcane without affecting forestland. This can replace about fifteen-twenty percent of the gasoline production in the world. The question is why isn't it being done?

One presenter that Brazil invested too much in the deep-sea water oil which led to the neglect of the sugarcane ethanol development. The presenter suggested that to prevent deforestation it is important to strengthen implementation of forest codes and to intensify the production of cattle and rangeland. Doing so will allow Brazil to meet the same production target with less land, thus having enough land for biofuels. But the extent biofuels will be available in Brazil is uncertain because of policy issues. One thing that is clear after the next election is that Brazil energy policies will change, which will bode well for the ethanol sector.

UC Berkeley's interest in biofuels is primarily in the development of second-generation biofuels that rely on grasses or wood, and don't compete with feedstocks. The US government expected much faster development of second-generation biofuels than what actually happened. They are on course to suspend the program because the industry didn't deliver it. However, we learned that the industry had overcome some of the early learning pains. There is a new commercial facility in Italy that will be utilized in other countries like Brazil. People will use the residue of sugarcane production and biogas for second-generation biofuels. Actually, the second-generation will fulfill some of its promises with delay. Once second-generation will be able to produce extra ethanol in the US, the challenge will be to provide a larger infrastructure to utilize it. That means more gas pumps and flex fuel cars. Development of policy to enhance this activity is also a major challenge.

In the section on biotechnology, we learned that South Africa has a ninety-percent successful adoption rate of GM corn. It is grown by a lot of poor farmers and there also attempts to introduce new varieties for virus resistant. The big challenge is the issue of regulation. There was also a presentation that there are prospects of introduction of drought tolerant- and vitamin A enhanced- GMO, and while this product is economically viable, the registration and acceptance continue to be major challenges. The GMO debate continues.

Two interesting presentations were about future technology. The EU is working with African nations to develop a supply chain for solar energy.  Since solar energy is not always available, they started to combine solar and biofuels to have more reliable and viable systems of energy. The design of the system is a major policy challenge, but in the conference we saw the first model to assess its impacts and costs. Finally, there was an interesting presentation on the use of cassava, especially in Asia, as a biofuel feedstock. There were several other presentations on other biofuel stocks for developing countries. It seems that there was an initial hype of this concept and didn't fulfill expectations. But there are some products that do and are very promising.

I think that the bioeconomy is essential for our future, especially given the threat of climate change and high environmental costs of fossil fuel reliance. But it requires investment in research, some small risks and significant regulatory reform. In the end, it will benefit humanity and, I believe, the people in developing countries.