The buzz surrounding the use of grass clippings and other agricultural leftovers as biofuel has been around for years. It seems as if the technology to make “grassoline” is nearly there, but the infrastructure is much further behind.
Biofuels can, in essence, be made from anything that is or was a plant, according to Scientific American. A first-generation biofuel is derived from edible biomass, such as corn, sugarcane and soybeans. In the U.S. alone, there are 180 refineries to process corn into ethanol, used as a supplement in gasoline. They have proved themselves as worthy sources of biofuel, though their sustainability as a fuel source has been questioned as of late.
According to Scientific American, there is simply not enough farmland to provide the sources of first-generation biofuel. Current farmland availability would yield no more than 10 percent of developed nations’ liquid fuel needs. Competition for this biomass could lead to increased crop prices as well, making that corn on the cob or glass of soymilk a bit more expensive than it used to be.
The answer to meeting an increased demand for plant based fuels may lie in second-generation biofuel. Second-generation refers to inedible agricultural waste. Grass clippings, cornstalks, weeds and even wood-based residues like sawdust and construction debris could act as feedstocks. As opposed to first-generation biofuels, these supplies are cheap, abundant, do not compete with food production and would otherwise need to be disposed of via compost or landfill.
Petroleum is still the largest competitor to biofuels, dominating both the market and the infrastructure. Yet, if current U.S. interest in biofuels continues, biomass conversion technologies could move from the laboratory to the market within the next decade. What do you think?