When we talk of human family trees, we talk of first generation, second generation and so forth. The same is true with biofuels. As our global knowledge on biofuel development improves, we have different generations and different anticipated commercial readiness dates.
First Generation (2000 - 2010)
These are the very first we ever tried. We knew sugar, starch and oil produce energy so we decided to see if we could run machines with this energy. Corn, wheat, vegetable oil, sugarcane, molasses, potatoes...are the feedstocks. As you can see by the names, we ran into a problem: should we grow the crops for eating or for biofuels? We quickly realized demand for biofuels would be so large we could run out of food while growing food crops. This triggered a search for alternatives.
Second Generation (2010 - 2030)
Biomass, specifically lignin and cellulose (lignocellulosic biorefinery). The feedstocks are agricultural waste, woody plants, grasses, solid municipal waste, industrial waste, algae. Not only are these feedstocks non-edible, we are not using arable land to grow them and we are solving a waste disposal problem as well. The challenge is the technology to produce second generation biofuels is more expensive and the scaling for mass production is more difficult.
Third Generation (2030 - )
As we experimented with algae, we realised some algae are better than others. We narrowed research to focus on algae with a natural oil content of 50% and above because this makes the extraction process more cost effective. Yields are higher and biodiversity is greater (we have more options to choose from). The challenge is where to grow the algae and how best to extract the biofuel. Algae is not something we want to be abundant in our fresh water. Algae grows better in warm temperatures. Algae need a lot of nutrients (water, nitrogen, phosphorus) to grow. The cost effectiveness of algae for sustainable mass production is still being examined.
Fourth Generation (2030 - )
Now we get into synthetic biology. We can genetically engineer plants, algae and microbes to get the specific yields and properties that are ideal for mass production. We are even aiming for carbon negative instead of carbon neutral biofuels. The challenge is of course that our genetic engineering and biological synthesis skills are currently in their infancy. We know that what we don't know is at present more than what we do know. Notwithstanding, we can be confident that global collaboration will enable us to rapidly expand and improve our knowledge as it has with previous scientific research and discovery.
The following links provide closer look second, third and fourth generation research
The challenge of cost-effective, mass produced biofuels will not be solved by any one country, research group or company.
What are you inspired to do in order to solve the challenge?