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February 21, 2008 11:47 AM

Could cellulosic ethanol and biotech crops improve biofuels' greenhouse rep?

Posted by Angel Gonzalez

Biofuels have taken flak in recent studies that claim running cars on Midwestern grain and Malaysian palm oil creates more greenhouse gases than created by the reviled fossil fuels. But what about fuels made out of agricultural waste, combined with high-yielding biotech-enhanced crops exclusively dedicated to energy?

"The next generation of dedicated energy crops shows tremendous potential of improving the greenhouse gas profile of agriculture," said Matt Carr, an official with the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington during a conference call today to discuss biofuels.

Biotech applied to increasing the yield of switchgrass or sorghum could help cellulosic ethanol become a massive industry. The government is certainly pinning its hopes on cellulosic fuel: the Department of Energy
recently announced that it would invest up to $114 million in four small cellulosic ethanol biorefineries in Missouri, Colorado, Oregon and Wisconsin. The government also plans to fund a second round of facilities this spring.

The plants are expected to be up and running by 2011, said participants in the project, speaking at a round-table organized by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

But to quench the nation's ever-growing thirst for transportation fuel -- and the government's ambitious biofuel mandates -- will require about 300 large biorefineries, an investment "equal to the Apollo project and the Manhattan project put together," said Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO's Industrial and Environmental Section. Ethanol plans are still relatively simple facilities, but over time "will become like oil refineries," Erickson said.

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