How do second-generation biofuels work?

A New Generation

Miscanthus is a great example of a second-generation biofuel crop. The grass is fast growing, drought-resistant and thrives in poor soil that cannot be used for food crops. Unlike corn and grain, miscanthus is a perennial. Farmers only have to plant it once and it will come back year after year. In addition, miscanthus and other second-generation crops require far less fertilizer and cultivation than first-generation crops, which translates into less environmental degradation and energy use.

In Sampson County, Chemtex hopes local farmers will plant miscanthus in the spring of 2013 so the company will have enough grass to feed its refinery when it opens a year later. Chemtex has already signed an agreement with Gulf Oil to purchase all of the ethanol the refinery produces. The company will build its facility on 166 acres. It should employee 300 people [source: Ramsey].

The miscanthus fields won't be competing for land that corn and soybean farmers use. State officials have already identified 100,000 acres in a three-county region, including Sampson County, which farmers can use as biocrop farmland. Some of that acreage is marginal land at best. Some of it is sandy and would make it easy to grow miscanthus and other second-generation biofuel crops. Hog farmers already use some of those acres as hog-waste spray fields [source: Ramsey].

While the production of second-generation biofuels might seem to be the answer to our energy and environmental woes, the situation is much more complicated. As it stands now, the process to convert second-generation crops into biofuel is more expensive than producing first-generation biofuel. That's because it takes a lot more energy to produce biofuel from second-generation biofuel crops than it does from first-generation feedstock. As a result, scientists are desperately searching for newer and less expensive ways to convert second-generation biocrops into biofuel.

Efficiency and production capacity are two other problems scientists must overcome. One recent study suggests that only one of nine second-generation biofuels spews less greenhouse gases into the air than fossil fuels. Moreover, many experts aren't so sure whether second-generation biofuels can provide enough fuel to power the world's automobiles [source: Birdlife International].

Although these other problems exist, scientists and engineers are confident they can make second-generation biofuels work. They're not expected to become commercially viable for several more years, but experts predict the new generation is the best answer to solve our world's energy and environmental woes.

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