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Strategies for near-term scale-up of cellulosic biofuel production using sorghum and crop residues in the US


The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) initially set ambitious goals for US cellulosic biofuel production and, although the total renewable fuel volume reached 80% of the established target for 2017, the cellulosic fuel volume reached just 5% of the original goal. This shortfall has, in part, been ascribed to the hesitance of farmers to plant the high-yielding, low-input perennial biomass crops identified as otherwise ideal feedstocks. Policy and market uncertainty also hinder investment in capital-intensive new cellulosic biorefineries. This study combines remote sensing land use data, yield predictions, a fine-resolution geospatial modeling framework, and a novel facility siting algorithm to evaluate the potential for near-term scale-up of cellulosic fuel production using a combination of lower-risk annual feedstocks more familiar to US farmers: corn stover and biomass sorghum. Potential strategies include expansion or retrofitting of existing corn ethanol facilities and targeted construction of new facilities in resource-rich areas. The results indicate that, with a maximum 10% conversion of pastureland and cropland to sorghum in suitable regions, more than 80 of the 214 existing corn ethanol biorefineries could be retrofitted or expanded to accept cellulosic feedstocks and an additional 71 new biorefineries could be built. The resulting land conversion for bioenergy sorghum totals to 4.5% of US cropland and 3.7% of pastureland. If this biomass is converted to ethanol, the total increase in annual production could be 17 billion gallons, just over the original RFS 2022 cellulosic biofuel production target and equivalent to 12% of US gasoline consumption.

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