Bioenergy FAQs

What is biofuel made out of?

Depending on the type of biofuel, it can be made from a variety of feedstocks:

  • First generation: Food crops such as corn, soy, palm, and sugarcane that are high in sugar, starch, and vegetable oil, as well as animal fats.
  • Second generation: Ligno-cellulosic biomass from non-food crops, including fast-growing grasses like switchgrass and agricultural residue such as waste biomass, and the stalks of wheat, corn, and wood.
  • Third generation: Oil of algae, as well as designed/genetically-controlled crops, such as oilier crops, that provide higher yields. Algae produce nearly 30 times more energy per unit area than land crops such as soybeans.
  • Future technologies: Genetically-optimized feedstocks designed to capture large amounts of carbon, combined with genomically-synthesized microbes, which make fuels efficiently.

Are next-generation biofuels viable energy options?

Developing cost-effective processes to break down cellulosic biomass has been the focus of research by many government and industry groups. The US and Canada have devoted resources to this kind of research, given their extensive prairie and grasslands, and other OECD countries are also making research investments. Significant progress has led to biochemical conversion processes that break down cellulose and hemicellulose and thermochemical conversion processes to break down lignin. Together, these processes could unlock the potential of cellulosic feedstocks for ethanol production.

Algae, such as Chlorella vulgaris, are relatively easy to grow, but the algal oil is difficult to extract. There are several ways to fracture the algae cell to reach the lipids floating in the cytoplasm. Research is underway to develop technologies that are scalable to commercial standards.

Are certain feedstocks more efficient for biofuel production than others?

Ethanol in the United States is mainly produced from the starch in corn grain. There has been much debate as to whether using corn as feedstock yields a positive or negative energy balance, however. Much depends on the relative productivity of feedstocks, the nature of the technologies that are used for conversion, and how these feedstock crops are grown—whether or not they are farmed in an energy-intensive way. Corn-based ethanol tends to be at the bottom end of most efficiency estimates, especially if there is high fertilizer use, energy-intensive irrigation, and machine-heavy cultivation involved. Ethanol made from sugarcane tends to require less energy than that made from corn—especially that from Brazil, since much of it is rainfed, and the waste products from cane crushing (bagasses) are used as energy inputs. In addition, once the technology to produce cellulosic ethanol becomes widely available, the energy lifecycle balance of ethanol is expected to improve significantly.

What are the potential benefits of biofuels versus conventional fuels such as petroleum?

  • Energy efficiency: Estimates of the energy balance of corn-based ethanol vary, but recent studies using updated data on corn production methods demonstrate a positive energy balance for corn ethanol. Cellulosic-based ethanol provides an even greater benefit in terms of energy efficiency.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions: The carbon dioxide released when ethanol is burned is balanced by the carbon dioxide captured when the crops are grown to make ethanol. This differs from petroleum, which is made from plants that grew millions of years ago. According to the Argonne National Laboratory, on a life-cycle analysis basis, using corn-based ethanol instead of gasoline reduces greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 19% to 52%, depending on the source of energy used during ethanol production. The GHG emission benefit of biofuels, however, can be compromised if land use changes offset the direct GHG emission reductions. Cellulosic ethanol could reduce GHG emissions even further.
  • Socio-economic benefits: Biofuels production is also perceived to have the potential to contribute to revitalization of agricultural development and rural income (see below).

What are the potential drawbacks of biofuels?

Potential environmental drawbacks of crop-based biofuels production include soil erosion and stress on water resources. There is also concern that biofuel-driven feedstock production could increase emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases and hasten the reduction of forested area, loss of biodiversity, and other important indicators of ecosystem health. Policy-driven biofuel expansion can also lead to increases in food prices. In addition, land use changes for biofuels production release carbon into the atmosphere, offsetting the expected direct GHG emission reduction if not managed properly.

Which countries produce biofuels?

Different countries focus on different biofuel crops and conversion methods. Among the major biofuel producers, corn is converted into ethanol in the U.S., sugarcane into ethanol in Brazil, rape seed into biodiesel in Europe, palm oil into biodiesel in Indonesia, and maize and wheat into ethanol in China—although China is looking at alternatives such as sweet potatoes and cassava. The US and Brazil produce the most ethanol in the world—more than four billion gallons per year each, followed by China and India. In most countries, biofuels account for a relatively small percentage of overall fuel and energy used.

Has the growth in biofuels helped drive up food prices?

A number of studies (including from IFPRI) have attributed a sizable proportion (up to one third or more) of increases in international market prices of cereals and oils to the strong growth in crop-based biofuels programs. Which prices one uses is critical, as domestic food price indices differ greatly across countries, depending on the composition of diets and the share of food products in overall consumption. This share is high for poorer developing regions, in general, compared to wealthier countries, where the majority of household expenditures go towards non-food items. This is part of the reason that estimates of food price impacts of biofuels from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, differ so much from those of other organizations. They consider the effect on retail consumer prices, as opposed to international market prices, which tend to be more relevant to those countries that depend heavily on imports to meet domestic food staple needs. The methodological approach and modeling assumptions used to measure these effects also matter, which is why there is such a wide range of estimates (3% to 75%) on the share of food price increases attributable to biofuels. The 2008 State of Food and Agriculture Report, by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, which focuses on biofuels, summarizes these estimates and why they differ and includes other references on this topic.

Can biofuel production be pro-poor?

A growing body of work focuses on the ways in which biofuel production can be pro-poor, and also help alleviate the burden of searching for domestic energy needed for heating, cooking, and lighting, which is usually borne by women in rural areas—often to the detriment of their health. Biofuel production can incorporate rural small-holder farmers more tightly into the value chain, allowing them to capture more of the value-added generated by biofuel production systems beyond just providing raw material and biomass. The boost in employment and wages for agricultural workers can provide additional income to landless rural households, and higher output prices for key feedstock crops can boost the agricultural incomes of farm households that are net sellers of those crops (even though net consumers, who might be largely urban, will not benefit). Research by IFPRI and collaborators shows that if there are positive technological spillover effects into subsistence, smallholder agriculture—particularly when key staple crops are cultivated—then there could also be pro-poor consequences from biofuels growth. This research finds that the configuration of biofuels production systems is important for pro-poor outcomes, since more intensive, plantation-style schemes will mostly give benefits through paid labor and wage effects, whereas more outgrower-oriented schemes might have a stronger poverty-reducing effect for smallholder farmers who use their labor on-farm. Given the advantages of plantation schemes in efficiency and their consistently high volume of feedstock supply, the goals of poverty reduction and industry-level process efficiency can conflict. A number of countries, however, are seeking to adopt a "mixed" strategy to avoid complete domination by mono-crop plantation systems and allow for a more varied agricultural landscape and the ability to capture pro-poor benefits. (See IFPRI Discussion Paper 803.)

Can biofuel production be more sustainable?

There are many efforts to create sustainability criteria for the production of biofuels. These include ensuring that the potential savings in carbon emissions from avoiding fossil fuel consumption are not inadvertently offset by indirect land use changes that might reduce carbon storage (thereby causing 'leakage' effects), or by avoiding carbon-intensive methods in biofuel production. Other ways to enhance sustainability include avoiding trade-offs with human welfare, such as using food crops as feedstock, or addressing issues of pollution and loss of biodiversity that might undermine ecosystem health in the long term.

What is IFPRI's stance on biofuels?

IFPRI's research on biofuels is evolving and has mostly focused on the impacts relating to food security—which are negative when key food crops such as maize are targeted for feedstock use. IFPRI has advised caution when designing national biofuel programs to avoid these conflicts, and IFPRI has also recommended that some of the major producers of biofuel, such as the United States, remove their trade barriers against the importation of ethanol. IFPRI still believes, however, that there are positive benefits that can be realized from properly-designed biofuel programs, especially when they lead to opportunities for the rural poor and smallholder producers of feedstock. IFPRI is exploring the potentially positive benefits for women when bioenergy production is geared towards providing cheaper and cleaner fuels for domestic use. Given IFPRI's research mandate, IFPRI's research on biofuels will continue to focus on analyzing the impacts on the agricultural sector and the implications for agricultural economies and food security.