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See Inside July 2009

Grassoline: Biofuels beyond Corn

Scientists are turning agricultural leftovers, wood and fast-growing grasses into a huge variety of biofuels—even jet fuel. But before these next-generation biofuels go mainstream, they have to compete with oil at $60 a barrel



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By now it ought to be clear that the U.S. must get off oil. We can no longer afford the dangers that our dependence on petroleum poses for our national security, our economic security or our environmental security. Yet civilization is not about to stop moving, and so we must invent a new way to power the world’s transportation fleet. Cellulosic biofuels—liquid fuels made from inedible parts of plants—offer the most environmentally attractive and technologically feasible near-term alternative to oil.

Biofuels can be made from anything that is, or ever was, a plant. First-generation biofuels derive from edible biomass, primarily corn and soybeans (in the U.S.) and sugarcane (in Brazil). They are the low-hanging fruits in a forest of possible biofuels, given that the technology to convert these feedstocks into fuels already exists (180 refineries currently process corn into ethanol in the U.S.). Yet first-generation biofuels are not a long-term solution. There is simply not enough available farmland to provide more than about 10 percent of developed countries’ liquid-fuel needs with first-generation biofuels. The additional crop demand raises the price of animal feed and thus makes some food items more expensive—though not nearly as much as the media hysteria last year would indicate. And once the total emissions of growing, harvesting and processing corn are factored into the ledger, it becomes clear that first-generation biofuels are not as environmentally friendly as we would like them to be.

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