In 1908 Henry Ford constructed an ethanol fermentation plant in Atchison, Kansas, designed to fuel the first generation of his newest car, the Model T. The investment represented Ford's belief that ethanol would be the primary fuel for the emerging American automobile. In this instance, Ford's prediction was wrong. By the close of World War II, the discovery of seemingly unlimited supplies of oil had greatly reduced the price of gasoline and diesel fuel, to the point that ethanol made from biomass essentially disappeared from the American market.
Nearly a century later, a combination of political, financial and environmental factors has rekindled America's interest in Ford's original belief that biofuels can be a major component of the fuel needed to run the nation's transportation system. In a world market now under growing pressure from diminishing reserves and increasing demand, the cost of petroleum is reaching levels unimaginable only a decade ago. Across the continents of Africa and Southern Asia, prolonged political instability threatens fragile oil supply lines. At home, the annual consumption of more than 300 billion gallons of fuel made from petroleum in combustion engines is a major contributor to unprecedented levels of greenhouse gas in Earth's atmosphere.
Led by the Department of Energy, America is moving toward a transformational change that includes the displacement of petroleum with carbon-neutral, renewable sources of transportation fuels. President George W. Bush has established a goal that by the year 2030 the equivalent of 30 percent of the gasoline used on U.S. highways will be replaced with biofuels. With biofuels accounting for only about three percent of current motor fuels consumption, the technological challenge is among the most daunting of the new century.
This issue of the ORNL Review is dedicated to the efforts of researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to help develop transportation fuels from lignocellulosic biomass in a manner that is environmentally sustainable and cost competitive with petroleum. The work thus far is promising. ORNL is moving beyond conventional methods of producing ethanol from corn, using cutting-edge research to develop exciting new kinds of biofuels from crops such as switchgrass and poplar trees. Our effort is multi-faceted and cross-disciplinary, addressing the economic, environmental and agronomic issues associated with bioenergy production. Our research employs some of the most advanced analytical tools available, including the world's most powerful neutron scattering facilities and America's largest open-science, ultrascale computer. With these unique resources, we are coming closer each day to understanding plants with bioenergy crop potential, as well as microbes and microbial communities to process biomass into fuels and the molecular mechanisms and dynamics of biocatalysis.
As we undertake this challenge with the Department of Energy, we are encouraged by a commitment from both the Governor of Tennessee and the University of Tennessee to lend their resources in the common goal of increasing the use of biofuels and decreasing carbon emissions. Working together with these and other university and industry partners, we are increasingly confident that we are on the verge—in perhaps three to five years—of discoveries that will transform American transportation as surely as Henry Ford's Model T did more than a century ago.
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