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The Sustainable Biofuels Lab: Accelerating the Production of Sustainable Biofuels at Scale

The first Sustainable Biofuels Lab workshop will take place on December 1-3, 2009. Click for full agenda or to register.

There is now strong scientific consensus that human activities are contributing to a rapid rise in concentrations of carbon dioxide and other so-called “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere. As a result, average global temperatures are rising. Stemming further rise in temperature and sea level will require first stabilization, and then reductions of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

One great attraction of biofuels derived from photosynthesizing organisms, is that carbon contributed to the atmosphere through using such fuels, is removed from the atmosphere the following year as replacement crops are grown. In other words, carbon used in sustained biofuel “production and use” chains is recycled annually. To the extent that these production and use cycles contribute no net new carbon to the atmosphere, we may speak of them as being “carbon neutral.”

Draft lifecycle GHG emission reduction results for different time horizon & discount rate approaches

But even achieving “carbon neutrality” isn’t enough. Ultimately, we must not only reduce the rate of buildup of these gases in the atmosphere, but also their existing concentrations. Because of atmospheric lag effects, scientists tell us that our atmosphere will continue to warm for hundreds of years — even if we stop all fossil fuel combustion tomorrow. Given this, our central problem is, “how fast can we first reduce — and then reverse — our net carbon contribution to the atmosphere, while maintaining positive economic growth and development — and without otherwise damaging our environment?”

While there is no single solution to this problem, achieving truly sustainable biofuels production holds great and genuine promise. But achieving sustainable biofuels means developing fuel production and use cycles that contribute less carbon: fuel cycles that are closer to carbon neutral — or even carbon negative — and do not significantly damage our environment in other ways, such as through deforestation or increasing global food prices.

If we could achieve this, we might imagine meeting our entire liquid fuel transportation requirements with domestically produced fuels using carbon negative fuel production and use cycles. In such a world, year after year we would meet our requirements for transportation fuel, while reducing the total concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Indeed, the more we used, the faster carbon levels in the atmosphere would decrease.

But what are the fuels, technologies, policies, economics, environmental standards, and cultural norms that are required? And how do we get there as fast as possible? What is the optimal path or paths?

The Sustainable Biofuels Lab is a multi-stakeholder process being convened to collaboratively address these complex questions. Bio-era and Reos Partners are proposing to engage major stakeholders in a two-phase process aimed squarely at defining requirements and accelerating commercial development of sustainable biofuels at scale.

The first phase of the process will bring participants up to a common level of knowledge and understanding of the current and potential future situation, including the practical requirements for (and consequences of) achieving sustainable biofuels production at scale.

The second phase of the process will be action-oriented, and aimed at enacting collectively identified innovations to accelerate the commercialization of sustainable biofuels.

Overview of the two-phased, “Sustainable Biofuels Lab” process