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Research points to benefits of advanced biofuels as alternative energy

Angela Keane | Feb 5, 2014

Dr. Sarah Davis, assistant professor at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, is a leading expert in energy bioscience and has recently published several articles about her research. Working alongside many national and international colleagues, Dr. Davis’ research informs the scientific community and industry by providing data and modeling results on the impacts of biofuel development and usage.

Dr. Davis’ research began in part when she became interested in examining if ethanol bioenergy was going to offer any benefits when compared to fossil fuels. “I got interested in lifecycle assessments which drove me to develop and test hypotheses about the ecological processes that are affected by bioenergy agriculture. It turns out that some biofuel production systems do have negative ecological impacts, but others can lead to environmental benefits and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions,” Davis said.

In her article, “Management Swing Potential for Bioenergy Crops,” recently published in the scientific journal GCB Bioenergy, she stresses how a single management decision, such as harvesting time, harvesting techniques, or fertilization, can completely reverse the upward trajectory of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “Even if you take all emissions into account from the upstream processes needed for cultivation to the downstream conversion to fuel, a single crop management decision can completely reverse the GHG emissions of the system.”

Dr. Davis is also interested in the policies that address how cellulosic biofuels can be an alternative to ethanol derived from corn, and policies related to environmentally sustainable energy in general. The recent articles point out that cellulosic feedstocks are just now being commercialized in the United States, in part because of historical competition from ethanol and traditional farming interests. Companies have invested so much into the corn industry over time that it is a challenge to get the industry to think outside of the box. Despite such challenges, Dr. Davis urges that knowledge about advanced biofuel systems is key. “We are at a point where the next generation of the biofuel industry will take off or it will collapse because of political debates. If it takes off, having the knowledge about environmentally sustainable practices is a really important thing for long-term success.”

With these research articles, Dr. Davis hopes that people will have a greater understanding of the potential for a more sustainable non-fossil fuel-based energy system. She has started talking with people locally about investing in bioenergy in order to bring alternative cellulosic biofuels to market. “There are local businesses that are interested in investing, but there are a lot of pieces that go into the decision making process. We first need to figure out how to make it economically viable for a small company and then things can start happening locally.”

Dr. Davis is working on additional projects that will contribute to broader awareness of alternative biofuel systems. Over the past year, she has been working with BP and teams from other universities to create a “bioenergy handbook.” The handbook will provide an overview of bioenergy introducing different kinds of feedstocks, along with environmental and economic considerations for developing each. The handbook is scheduled to be released within the next year.

To read more about Dr. Davis’ research, the referenced journal articles include:

Davis SC, R Boddey, B Alves, A Cowie, B George, SM Ogle, P Smith, M van Noordwijk, MT van Wijk. 2013. Management swing potential for bioenergy crops. Global Change Biology Bioenergy 5(6): 623-638, doi: 10.1111/gcbb.12042.

Hudiburg T, SC Davis, WJ Parton and EH DeLucia. 2013. Bioenergy crop greenhouse gas mitigation potential under a range of management practices. GCB Bioenergy in press.

Davis SC, Kucharik CJ, Fazio S and Monti A. 2013. Environmental sustainability of advanced biofuels. Biofpr (Special Issue: An Atlantic bridge for comparing EU and US views on the prospects of second-generation biofuels) 7(6): 638-646.