The U.S. Bioeconomy needs biomass, but what is it and how do we use it?

In the quest for sustainable energy and materials, biomass emerges as a key player, bridging the gap between the energy sector and the burgeoning U.S. and regional bioeconomies (microbioeconomies). Despite often being pigeonholed as fuel for energy production, biomass holds far-reaching potential that extends beyond combustion. Identifying sustainable biomass feedstocks that are easily accessible and consistent in their makeup could be a game-changer to help regions unlock their bioeconomy potential and support scientific innovations toward more environmentally sustainable materials and chemicals.

Biomass is defined as “any organic matter that is available on a renewable or recurring basis, including agricultural crops and trees, wood and wood residues, plants, algae, grasses, animal manure, municipal residues, and other residue materials” by the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR). Biomass has mainly been viewed by the public as a source of energy through burning or for chemical conversion into biofuels, encouraged by federal incentive programs, including those from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Energy (DOE). However, aside from burning or conversion for biofuel, biomass can undergo a complex process of chemical or biological breakdown and be transformed into various building block components that can be used for a wide range of biotechnology applications.

Once the biomass is broken down into its functional components it can be used as a feedstock, which is a “resource used as the basis for manufacturing another product. [Often], . . . a source of carbon to produce an array of chemicals.” For example, lignocellulosic biomass, plant or plant-based materials not used for food, can be hydrolyzed into sugars, which serve as precursors for bio-based chemicals and materials. This allows for new, environmentally sustainable chemicals for use in biotechnology and biomanufacturing applications, thus positioning biomass as a cornerstone resource of the U.S. bioeconomy. In addition to biochemical production, biomass, and feedstock are used in the bioeconomy in bioplastics and biomaterials. To push the U.S. bioeconomy toward environmental sustainability, it is critical to begin building programmatic and physical infrastructure to harness biomass, which is ultimately converted into feedstock using biotechnology applications and used in the biomanufacturing process to create everyday materials for the public.

Not All Biomass is Used for Energy, or Sustainably Produced

While biomass holds promise as a renewable energy source, not all biomass is used for energy, and not all of it is sustainable. Corn is a consistent poster child of the biomass and biofuel industry as a sustainable way to power combustion engines. Yet, the growth of corn relies heavily on the extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides, which can lead to soil erosion, water pollution, and habitat degradation. Depending on how a company conducts its Life Cycle Assessment and Carbon Intensity of its supplies, corn may not truly represent an environmentally sustainable biomass solution.

However, it is tough to beat the productivity of corn and its ability to be used for various biomass and atmospheric carbon capture applications. For example, corn stover, the byproduct stalks and leaves leftover from harvest, can be broken down into biochar for reuse in soil nutrient replenishment and is excellent for carbon sequestration from the atmosphere. Carbon sequestration is the “storage of carbon dioxide (CO2) after it is captured from industrial facilities and power plants or removed directly from the atmosphere”. One California-based company, Charm, is harvesting the leftover corn leaves, husks, and stalks and breaking them down into bio-oil which is stored deep underground in EPA-regulated wells. This bio-oil now contains sequestered carbon from corn crops and locks it away for thousands of years thus allowing a simple, and effective, way to use farm waste materials as carbon sequestration machines. This corn stover may otherwise have been burned or left to rot, releasing its carbon into the atmosphere.

As the DOE Bioenergy Technology Office puts it:

“Crops can serve as a carbon sink, capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. During CO2 fermentation, some of this recycled CO2 can be harnessed for various applications, such as carbon capture and storage, where it can be compressed or stored underground. The convergence of lower input costs, improvement of ethanol production, and CO2 management showcases a sector poised to contribute to a sustainable and prosperous future.”

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While corn remains the leader of the biomass pack for usage in atmospheric carbon capture, it is necessary to begin broadening the biomass portfolio into other crops, both conventional and not, that can offer similar carbon capture and biomass benefits for industrial energy and feedstock use. The introduction of more sustainable biomass inputs, like waste hulls from almond crops, winter oilseed crops, or macro/microalgae, might be the key to introducing options for industries to use for their biomanufacturing processes. To make the U.S. bioeconomy more environmentally sustainable, it will be necessary to prioritize the use of biomass that is sustainable for the creation of bio-based products. To achieve this, policymakers and industry leaders can come together to understand the physical infrastructure needed to support the processing and utilization of sustainable biomass.

Biomass in Carbon Accounting

A contentious issue in biomass utilization revolves around carbon accounting, particularly concerning the differentiation between biogenic and fossil fuel carbon. Biogenic carbon originates from recently living organisms and is part of the natural carbon cycle, while fossil fuel carbon is derived from the remains of extinct carbon-rich plants and animals that decomposed as they were compressed and heated in the ground. When burned, this fossil fuel carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The current carbon accounting frameworks often conflate these distinctions, leading to misconceptions and controversies surrounding biomass utilization’s carbon neutrality claims. Addressing this ambiguity is crucial for aligning policy frameworks with scientific realities and ensuring informed decision-making in biomass utilization. As microbioeconomies grow, any confusion about biogenic versus fossil fuel carbon could become another barrier to entry for burgeoning bioeconomy opportunities.

Environmental and Economic Impacts

All across rural America, local economic developers are seeing more biomass conversion projects come to their communities, which offers the chance to boost economic revenues from turning biomass into energy, fuel, or feedstock and creates a broad spectrum of jobs for the area. To capitalize on this, increased bioliteracy on how growing biomass could offer additional financial support for farmers, provide energy to heat communities, and become feedstock for the biotechnology and biomanufacturing industry is critical. The more we activate and connect parts of America that are not located in existing high-density technology hubs, the better prepared these communities will be when biomass projects look to settle in those places. For example, woody biomass was emphasized throughout the DOE 2023 Billion Ton report as an important biomass source for fuel and energy production, yet the process of getting the timber and woody biomass out of the forest and into processing facilities is slow to launch due to concerns over environmental impacts.

While environmental impacts are valid and of great concern in some ecosystems around the U.S., harvesting wood waste and timber in areas that are primed for increased forest fire risk might be a sustainable option for protecting forest ecosystems while also benefiting the community for energy and heat concerns. The USDA Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission discussed the need for further research into forest biomass to understand how it can generate profit for communities with otherwise waste materials while also mitigating fire risk. One recommendation stated the need for “Increase[d] resources for programs to help private landowners dispose of woody biomass”. Although several programs assist landowners in this effort, there are still significant expenses involved. These costs may discourage landowners from conducting fuel reduction activities, leading them to either burn the material, which can harm air quality, or leave it on the land, potentially worsening wildfire severity in case of an outbreak. There’s a necessity for initiatives supporting the disposal of biomass, including wood chipping, hauling, and its utilization. These initiatives could receive support from USDA Rural Development and should explore ways to encourage landowners to sustainably harvest their woody biomass for both financial incentives and for reducing wildfire risk.

Billion Ton Report Recommendations

According to the 2023 DOE Billion-Ton Report, the U.S. used 342 million tons of biomass for energy and bio-based chemicals in 2022. The top biomass source for biofuels is corn, with the U.S. producing nearly 150 tons per year of corn that is converted to ethanol. Whereas ~140 million tons of forestry/wood and wood waste (woody biomass) are used for heat and power purposes. However, many other types of biomass exist and are used for various purposes including transportation or industrial and electrical power. Below is an abbreviated list, based on the Billion-Ton Report, of common biomass examples and some of their uses.

The recent Billion Ton report makes it clear that the U.S. has plenty of available biomass for use in the production of biofuel, heat/energy, and bio-based products, and that further utilization of biomass in these applications and in biotechnology and biomanufacturing industries could be a way forward to mitigate climate change and improve sustainability of the U.S. bioeconomy. To change the mindset of biomass as more than corn grown for biofuel, it will take a concerted effort by the federal agencies involved in funding biomass use projects, like the DOE, USDA, National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense, to communicate to farmers that growing biomass can be profitable. It will also take a joint effort from the federal government and local governments to build pilot and commercial scale facilities to begin processing diverse biomass.

Overall, there is immense promise in connecting biomass growers, processors, and bio-powered industries. It allows the players in the U.S. bioeconomy to think critically about their waste outputs and how to harness biomass as the key to unlocking a future where all communities, be they rural or urban, benefit from our national bioeconomy. You can learn more about biomass use in biotechnology and biomanufacturing at our upcoming webinar May 1st at 10 AM ET.

The U.S. Bioeconomy is Not Yet Sustainable. Here’s What Needs to Change.

The U.S. Bioeconomy can be a slippery thing, but there’s no denying that leaders at the highest levels of industry and politics are paying attention to its potential to boost our economic growth and our technological edge.

Look no further than the White House’s Bioeconomy Executive Order – aimed at shaping a bioeconomy that is “safe, secure and sustainable.” While programs and reports have focused on the ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ aspects of the bioeconomy and economic indicators, environmental sustainability has not had as much momentum. But this isn’t necessarily due to a lack of interest in biobased products at the industrial level.

A novel collaboration between Ford Motor Company and Jose Cuervo® Tequila Company is one example of this growing interest. Agave by-products from tequila production will soon be used to create more sustainable bioplastics for next-generation Ford vehicles. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 5 billion metric tons of agricultural biomass waste is produced annually. Agriculture by-products, like the waste products from tequila production, are abundant and often underutilized; therefore, finding new processes to incorporate available waste products to create something new and sustainable can help manufacturers embrace more biobased materials. 

But one catch for building an environmentally sustainable national bioeconomy strategy is that not all biobased products or processes in the bioeconomy are – despite the connotations of “biobased” – inherently sustainable. Biobased products do indeed hold enormous promise for promoting economic growth while mitigating environmental challenges. And yet a strategy to ensure that environmental benefits actually get to consumers remains elusive. As the U.S. government grapples with delineating what sectors the bioeconomy does or does not contain –  it must also ask:  What does environmental sustainability mean in a bioeconomy? How should it be measured? Answers to these questions would support efforts to evaluate technologies and projects, prioritize investments, and ultimately improve sustainability.

Circular bioeconomy is a term commonly used to describe sustainability in the bioeconomy and combines two fundamental sustainability principles. First, it embraces the increased use of renewable resources, such as energy, chemicals, and materials, particularly those derived from plants. Second, it focuses on extending the lifecycle of these sustainable materials and products instead of discarding them. 

While the U.S. grapples with defining its bioeconomy and landing on a cohesive approach to  making it sustainable, the European Union (EU) and other international organizations have committed to this circular bioeconomy model (see BOX).

International definitions of the bioeconomy that include sustainability

Sustainability within the context of the European bioeconomy has been defined in many ways, including:

In the definitions above, economic and environmental sustainability inform each other depending on where a bioeconomy is located and what sector of the bioeconomy is being considered, such as biopharmaceutical manufacturing vs. agriculture. For example, sustainability for agriculturally-related bioeconomic products from Spain’s Andalusia region may look very different from sustainability for biopharmaceuticals from Berlin. The regionality differences will inform decisions that drive sustainability in a bioeconomy. 

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO )is creating guidance for developing and implementing sustainable bioeconomy strategies, policies, and programs across the globe The FAO focuses on five key elements of a sustainable bioeconomy: 1) the reduction of carbon emissions, 2) restoring biodiversity, 3) eliminating toxic waste, 4) building rural economies, and 5) reducing food insecurity and malnutrition. The FAO further states that the “development of a sustainable and circular bioeconomy globally is and will be driven by three broad forces:

The EU is currently working towards a sustainable bioeconomy that aligns with the European Green Deal objectives, to build more diverse supply chains that are less dependent on fossil fuels and non-renewable resources. Furthermore, the EU sees the shift towards biobased products and sustainable processes as a way to achieve economic, social, and environmental goals. Establishing an aligned strategy allows for the two independent plans to work in synergy together to promote and advance EU’s goals. Which is further promoted by financial incentives that help EU member countries and municipalities to partake in this overarching strategy. Significant amounts of funding have been invested into the European bioeconomy and more member states of the EU are using tax incentives, grants, loans, and subsidies for biobased products to “provide public financial support to circular bioeconomy projects.” These efforts push the private sector to create more biobased products, but also enable a shift in manufacturing and research development processes to become more sustainable in order to capture additional financial benefits. 

The EU’s intentional inclusion of sustainability as part of their bioeconomy strategy can be attributed to the general acceptance of nature as a societal and economical benefit. This sustainability-forward mindset  informs how the EU seeks to use biotechnology as a tool to fix societal challenges. Furthermore, the sustainability-forward mindset has informed  how natural resources are included as part of their economic evaluations. Preserving their natural resources becomes a priority for them and the EU sees the bioeconomy, and the biotechnology sitting within it, as a means to safeguarding their natural resources. 

The U.S., on the other hand, has a rich history in manufacturing, and takes a more industry-forward approach to promote biomanufacturing and biotechnology as a way to create new biobased products. Any societal challenges that may be alleviated along the way come as a positive byproduct but it is not the primary focus of the U.S. bioeconomy. Inclusion of sustainability in the U.S. bioeconomy gets further stress-tested by the vastness of the U.S. natural landscape and the increasing number of natural disasters that vary from one region to another. For example, the rampant wildfires continue to destroy thousands of acres of forested land on the West Coast and the coastal habitats are lost on the East Coast due to rising ocean levels. This all leads to immense challenges in conserving and protecting these natural resources at a national level, making it hard to establish a coherent environmental sustainability strategy for the U.S. bioeconomy.

To successfully achieve environmental sustainability, the U.S. bioeconomy needs a two-pronged approach. The first approach requires incorporating sustainability at the regional level. Due to historic, place-based federal investments throughout the U.S., like the Economic Development Administration (EDA) Tech Hubs or the National Science Foundation (NSF) Regional Innovation Engines, regional bioeconomies, or microbioeconomies, are beginning to form. 

Microbioeconomies utilize a region-specific biobased industries, academic strengths, and support sectors to apply and innovate on various biotechnologies that boost regional economies and mitigate region-specific environmental challenges. Microbioeconomies enable the integration of sustainability into the bioeconomy in a more approachable manner. Taking the lessons learned and major themes that arise from how these microbioeconomies are established and including sustainability in their planning, allows for a roadmap on how to integrate sustainability into the national bioeconomy strategy.

The second approach requires action at the federal level, in other words, a top-down approach to incorporating environmental sustainability into the U.S. bioeconomy.  This approach would require a dedicated effort to build the necessary infrastructure and common language of what sustainability is and how it can exist within the bioeconomy. One way that the federal government can start this process is by driving the convergence of bioeconomy and sustainability programs within federal agencies. By mandating that federally-funded bioeconomy programs and activities include a component of environmental sustainability, the government can spur a new wave of innovation and encourage regional efforts to incorporate sustainability in their microbioeconomies. The federal government can leverage and fortify existing programs to carry out this approach.  For example, the BioPreferred program, housed within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is meant to increase the purchase of biobased products in the U.S. through mandatory purchasing requirements for federal agencies and their contractors; and a voluntary labeling initiative for biobased products. As the recent Bioeconomy Executive Order also highlighted the need to strengthen and expand the BioPreferred program, and implementation of this task can be another step forward in incorporating sustainability into the U.S. bioeconomy.

With historic levels of investments and the push to reduce emissions to tackle climate change, the time is ripe with opportunities for U.S. innovators to bring sustainability into the fold of their manufacturing and R&D processes, products, and services. The U.S can take steps in the right direction by creating financial incentive programs similar to ones implemented by EU member states, incorporating sustainability language into our federal codes, and mandating that federally funded biotechnology research have a sustainability component. These changes will be critically important to both grow a future circular bioeconomy in the U.S. that can simultaneously promote economic growth and help alleviate the impacts of climate change.