Advanced Biofuels - The Path Forward

Liaison Functions
2009 AIChE Annual Meeting
AIChE Annual Meeting
November 8, 2009 - 7:00pm
Oil prices go up and they come down and our ability to forecast them with any real confidence has not been particularly good. A year ago when oil prices were at record highs and global economies were booming, the case for biofuels seemed clear. The path forward is cloudier today. Are we facing a repeat of the boom and bust cycle that decimated alternative energy development in the 1980s? What are the important differences to prevent another collapse? Four factors — climate change, rising global demand for a constrained supply, the end of easy oil, and the political and economic imperatives to reduce oil imports — are expected to sustain biofuels development, despite the hurdles brought about by the global economic crisis. It's a very different situation from the early 1980s. The push for sustainable energy is real and it's here to stay.

How will advanced (lignocellulosic) biofuels develop? It is a much more technically demanding challenge and it will take longer to unfold than grain based ethanol. While chemically similar as polymers of simple sugars, there are important differences between starch and cellulose. Those differences manifest in the way we have traditionally used them. We eat starch. We build houses out of cellulose. Processes involving hydrolysis and fermentation face far greater hurdles with lignocellulosic feedstocks than with starch. In fact it's quite likely that no single technology will dominate the 2nd generation biofuels industry. There are many potential pathways involving biochemical, thermochemical and chemical processes. It's too early to pick the winners. Different situations will favor different solutions. The speaker will explore promising developments that are likely to shape the emerging biofuels industry together with some of the challenges and uncertainties. One conclusion that stands out clearly among all the uncertainty is that the chemical engineering profession will play a dominant role in making sustainable biofuels a reality and thereby contributing in a significant way to the resolution of critical global issues.&'
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