Thursday, January 05, 2012

Expanding Earth's Usable Biomass Production

There are several ways that the Earth's industrial production from biomass could be expanded significantly:
  • Grow biomass in places currently thought unsuitable for growing
  • Grow more useful biomass crops per year on the same surface area
  • Achieve higher yield from each crop that is grown
  • Improve the quality of biomass feedstocks
And so on. DuPont's investment in new hybrid varieties of sorghum aims to make improvements in all four areas above. By investing in hybrid sorghum that produces both sugar and higher yield biomass, can be planted on dry marginal pasture land, and has a short growing season suitable for crop rotation -- all of these point to perhaps 100 billion gallons of additional US biofuels without using valuable cropland or significant water resources.
DuPont and NexSteppe have entered into a collaboration to develop advanced feedstocks for biofuels, biopower and biobased products. The collaboration will focus on the development of new sweet sorghum and high biomass sorghum hybrids which will create additional feedstock options for these industries.

...Sorghum is naturally drought- and heat-tolerant and has the ability to grow in marginal rainfall areas with high temperatures where it is difficult to grow other crops. It has a relatively short growing season and is suitable for crop rotation systems. Sorghum is increasingly grown as a source of feedstock for industrial value chains.

Sweet sorghum can be used as a complement to sugarcane in existing Brazilian sugar to ethanol mills, and as a feedstock for advanced biofuels and other biobased products produced from sugars. High Biomass Sorghum is a high-yielding crop that can be used as a feedstock for biopower and cellulosic biofuels. DuPont, through its Industrial Biosciences business, operates and develops industrial processes that use sugar as a feedstock. _GCC

This represents a relatively modest increase in potential for biofuels and industrial biomass on the scale of the US economy, but in terms of regional benefits and downward pressure on fuel and food costs, it could lead to significant incremental benefit.

Of course the truly huge potential for boosting planet Earth's biomass output will lie in the oceans, coastal and tidal areas, saline soils, and deserts. Planet Earth is the only biological planet that we know of. Life grows wild high in the atmosphere, at the bottoms of the seas, deep inside the rocky crust of the planet. Even on the most isolated mid-sea islands, no sooner does a new volcanic lava cool, than new outposts of living matter spring up -- from the microscopic to the macroscopic.

One of the greatest limitations to the growth of biomass on the planet is the quite low concentration of CO2 in Earth's atmosphere -- compared to earlier levels when most life evolved. Perhaps we will need to find more efficient ways of generating CO2 and releasing it into the atmosphere, so that we can grow as much biomass as we may need?

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