The Genomics: GTL program is addressing the needs for new sources of energy that could

  • Reduce the risk of global climate change by dramatically lowering the emission of greenhouse gases.

  • Have a favorable energy balance.

  • Have the potential to compete effectively with fossil fuels in the marketplace.

  • Reduce the adverse environmental effects of today’s pattern of energy production and consumption.

  • Meet a substantial fraction of U.S. (and global) energy demand.

One source of energy that could eventually meet those criteria is bioenergy produced by a variety of plants and microorganisms. The Genomics: GTL program could play a key role in realizing the potential of bioenergy by generating the fundamental knowledge that would make it technologically and economically feasible. Although it is premature to pick a “winner,” the research community has identified a number of promising directions, including

  • Genetic modification of crops to increase yields of usable energy per unit of cultivated land by a factor of 3-5 while maintaining nutrient and water requirements.

  • Conversion of cellulosic biomass to fuels by depolymerizing cellulose and hemicellulose into their component sugars and then converting the sugars to fuel.

  • Design of algae or bacteria that cost-effectively produce hydrogen or hydrocarbons.

Energy from biomass is the largest source of renewable energy in this country; it has surpassed hydropower and makes up 3 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States (Perlack et al., 2005). A recent study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC, 2004) concluded that scientific and technological advances and sound public policies could rapidly expand the use of plants and plant-derived materials for energy. By 2050, biofuels could displace more than 7 million barrels of oil per day, the equivalent of nearly half of the oil that the United States use in the transportation sector. In that scenario, the United States would be able to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by nearly 1.7 billion tons per year (as measured in tons of carbon dioxide [CO2] equivalents)—more than 22 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions in 2002. A transition to biofuels could also lead to improvements in air quality in that biofuels have almost no sulfur and produce fewer particles and toxic air pollutants (NRDC, 2004).

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