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A Call to Action Summit: Ensuring Iowa's Leadership in the Bioeconomy
November 28th, 2006
''Cellulosic biomass is the future of biofuels, but is Iowa ready?''

Gregory L. Geoffroy

Bruce A. Babcock

Robert C. Brown

Gregory L. Geoffroy
Bruce A. Babcock
Robert C. Brown

Iowa has made tremendous strides in developing its ethanol industry, and we are, without question, the nation's leader in production of grain ethanol from corn. But we have only taken the first step in achieving our shared vision of Iowa sustaining its leadership in the emerging bioeconomy.

If we are to continue our leadership role, we must focus more on the long-term than our present good fortune. Specifically, we must begin thinking about the ''next phase'' of biorenewable fuels. Most experts believe the next phase will be the generation of ''cellulosic ethanol'' and other biofuels from abundant lignocellulosic plant material. These experts believe this next phase is not far away, with the first commercial plant producing cellulosic ethanol coming as early as 2010.

Lignocellulose is the structural material of the plant world, more commonly known as plant fiber. It is the major constituent of most crop residues, such as cornstalks, and wood and grasses. Although it is much more difficult than corn grain to break down into sugars from which ethanol and other products are produced, the potential supply from agriculture is many times larger than that of corn grain.

Experts agree that the costs of growing enough corn to meet all of our needs for food and feed and to supply more than about 8% of future demand for transportation fuels will be high. To make a significantly greater dent in our dependence on foreign oil, we must look to sources like lignocellulose. We need to address both the technical and policy issues that will make this prospect a reality in Iowa and the United States.
Scientists and engineers have been investigating the technical challenges of cellulosic ethanol for more than 30 years, but research is just now beginning to emerge from the laboratory into pilot-scale tests and demonstration plants. Many states are beginning to position themselves to be the technology leaders and manufacturing centers for cellulosic ethanol, and it is dangerous for Iowa to assume that just because it has emerged as the leading producer of grain ethanol, it will also become the capital of cellulosic ethanol.

As the leading corn producer in the United States, it was reasonable to expect the grain ethanol industry to locate here to be close to its resource base. However, lignocellulosic energy crops are not currently part of the mainstream of American agriculture, and virtually any state with significant agricultural or forestry resources can compete in this emerging industry. This time, Iowa will have to create its competitive advantages in advanced renewable fuels.

The time is now for Iowa's leaders to start formulating policies and programs to ensure that Iowa continues its leadership into the era of advanced renewable fuels prepared from lignocellulosic energy crops. Some of the critical topics that must be addressed include:
  • Policies and incentives that encourage investment in cellulosic ethanol and other renewable fuels in Iowa, including greater use and availability of E-85 blends;
  • Support for expanded research into renewable fuels production from lignocellulosic materials and research into the viability in Iowa of high-yield biomass crops, like miscanthus, along with an analysis of how farm programs affect that viability;
  • Support for the infrastructure investments that will be essential to enable Iowa to continue to be the low-cost provider of biofuels;
  • A variety of conservation and environmental issues to ensure that Iowa's environment and resource base are not degraded from increased biofuels production; and
  • The impact of the biofuels industry on Iowa's traditional agricultural base.
To help formulate those policies and programs, we will convene a meeting Nov. 28 at Iowa State University for biorenewables technology and policy experts from industry and academia, members of the Iowa Legislature, and representatives of state and federal government agencies and other key Iowa groups to generate specific recommendations for Iowa's leaders. There is urgency to act, since other states are moving decisively to encourage the growth of the advanced renewable fuels industry within their borders. It is imperative that we not let others assume the lead and as a result garner the benefits that Iowa now enjoys.

Gregory L. Geoffroy is president of Iowa State University
Bruce A. Babcock is director of ISU's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development
Robert C. Brown is director of ISU's Office of Biorenewables Programs
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