01/28/2009 12:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Staying in the Lead on Biofuel Development -- Part 3

As Congress nears a vote on legislation to stimulate the economy, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced he would work with lawmakers and the rest of the Obama administration to include additional support for biofuels and renewable energy in the economic stimulus package and in an energy bill that the administration will offer later this year. He went on to say America needs to increase ethanol use and second-generation biofuels, like cellulosic ethanol.

Secretary Vilsack clearly understands the connection between first and second generation biofuels and the necessity of having an industry and infrastructure in place upon which to expand. He is also aware of a new peer-reviewed research study from the University of Nebraska that found America's ethanol industry is not only energy efficient but is cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 48% to 59% compared to gasoline.

The researchers also found that ethanol produced in energy-efficient plants generates from 1.5 to 1.8 units of energy for every unit of energy consumed in production. In the most efficient plants the ration was 2.2 units of energy per unit of energy input. These developments are for corn-based plants. New cellulosic technology can take us even further. According to a previous University of Nebraska study on greenhouse gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol, using switchgrass as a feedstock in ethanol production resulted in 94% lower than estimated greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline production and 540% more energy than was used to grow, harvest and process it into cellulosic ethanol.

This is why even under difficult economic circumstances, a number of companies and investors are moving forward with innovative cellulosic projects. At the same time, scientists are coming up with remarkable discoveries of new ways to produce ethanol from a variety of feedstocks and varying conversion technologies.

One company, ZeaChem, founded by former petrochemical company executives, is pursuing a process to convert an acre of poplar trees into 2,000 gallons of ethanol. Viewed another way, it is 135 gallons of fuel for every bone dry ton (BDT) of plant matter. According to a recent story, "the company cooks the lignin to extract hydrogen. The hydrogen is subsequently combined with the acetic acid to produce ethanol. Two-thirds of the energy in the ethanol comes from the acetic acid, while one-third comes from the added hydrogen, said [Jim] Imbler [Zeachem CEO], which is similar to the ratio of initial molecules from the wood. In a sense, the company is blowing apart wood and reforming it as an alcohol."

Zeachem and other companies pursuing a similar strategy may benefit from research just announced by scientists at Brookhaven National Labs which has identified bacteria that can boost the growth of poplars on marginal land.

Expanding the production of biofuels is an environmentally sound strategy to reduce carbon emissions, lessen oil dependence, promote scientific advancement and help put Americans to work. And this is just the beginning.