Research at the BCRL
We are in the early phases of a truly historic transition--from an economy based largely on petroleum to a more diversified economy in which renewable plant biomass will become a significant feedstock for both fuel and chemical production. The development of the petroleum refining industry over the past century provides many instructive lessons for the future biobased economy and also many reasons for supposing that the new biobased economy will be different from the hydrocarbon economy in crucial ways.
While remaining supplies of petroleum, coal and natural gas are very large, it is nonetheless obvious that the world is using these nonrenewable resources at a huge and growing rate. Some experts believe that the peak rate of production of conventional oil will occur within this decade, (http://www.peakoil.net/) while others predict this turning point will occur before mid century. After that point, conventional, inexpensive oil production will irreversibly decline. Natural gas production will peak later than conventional oil, but will still begin permanent decline within the next few decades. Although other sources of petroleum or petroleum substitutes exist (eg, tar sands, deepwater oil), they will be more difficult and much more expensive to produce, both economically and environmentally. Whatever the exact date of peak oil production, we are approaching a major change in the way we must provide energy and other services to the world’s population as the era of “cheap oil” draws to a close.
Renewable agricultural and forestry resources have been used since ancient times as fuels and the raw materials for numerous products. Our laboratory research work and sustainability analyses are directed toward development of a mature, efficient economy based on renewable plant materials. We assume a mature biobased economy--as the petroleum economy is mature today--and from that assumption we extrapolate likely features of the mature biobased economy. Among the technical, social and economic forces that will drive the mature biobased economy are:
- Yield (using the whole "barrel of biomass")
- Gradual diversification of biobased products, probably starting with fuels and then trending toward biochemicals and biomaterials over time
- Achieving an adequate "energy return on energy invested" (10:1 or greater) for the entire biofuel system
- The great diversity of biomass resources combined with their considerable compositional similarity,
- Possible/likely limits on agricultural productivity
- Integration of biorefining and agricultural ecosystems in a local social and political context (the "all biomass is local" paradigm)
- The sustainability of the mature biobased economy and its most important underlying resource--productive soils