In this paper, we assess what is known or anticipated about environmental and sustainability factors associated with next-generation biofuels relative to the primary conventional biofuels (i.e., corn grain-based ethanol and soybean-based diesel) in the United States during feedstock production and conversion processes. Factors considered include greenhouse (GHG) emissions, air pollutant emissions, soil health and quality, water use and water quality, wastewater and solid waste streams, and biodiversity and land-use changes. Based on our review of the available literature, we find that the production of next-generation feedstocks in the U.S. (e.g., municipal solid waste, forest residues, dedicated energy crops, microalgae) are expected to fare better than corn-grain or soybean production on most of these factors, although the magnitude of these differences may vary significantly among feedstocks. Ethanol produced using a biochemical or thermochemical conversion platform is expected to result in fewer GHG and air pollutant emissions, but to have similar or potentially greater water demands and solid waste streams than conventional ethanol biorefineries in the U.S. However, these conversion-related differences are likely to be small, particularly relative to those associated with feedstock production. Modeling performed for illustrative purposes and to allow for standardized quantitative comparisons across feedstocks and conversion technologies generally confirms the findings from the literature. Despite current expectations, significant uncertainty remains regarding how well next-generation biofuels will fare on different environmental and sustainability factors when produced on a commercial scale in the U.S. Additional research is needed in several broad areas including quantifying impacts, designing standardized metrics and approaches, and developing decision-support tools to identify and quantify environmental trade-offs and ensure sustainable biofuels production.

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Pamela R. D. Williams
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