“You can’t extrapolate the non-sustainable present to a sustainable future,” says the professor in environmental engineering design at Dartmouth University’s Thayer School of Engineering.
His point is that you can’t assess the future of bioenergy piecemeal, on the marginal gains of each new technology. Only by imagining how bioenergy might fit into a transformed energy and land-use sector is it possible to consider its potential.
That philosophy has kept Lynd optimistic. Despite his golden boyish curls, Lynd is one of the old hands in bioenergy research. He has persevered through more than two decades of on-again off-again interest in biofuels, ups and downs in energy prices, and the criticism of bioenergy skeptics.
“Given that we need to do almost everything differently in a sustainable world than we do them now—you can’t extrapolate the non-sustainable present to get to a sustainable future—in a world that was willing to make accommodations for bioenergy, could this be a good thing?” asks Lynd. “And the answer is hell, yeah!”
“Lee has long been among the top researchers in the area of biomass conversion to biofuels,” says Jason Hill, University of Minnesota bioenergy researcher who has published with Lynd but has also written skeptically of biofuels. “Those of us who have worked with him greatly appreciate his optimistic view of where bioenergy could go, should favorable financial conditions prevail and the right political framework be implemented.”
Bruce Dale, professor of engineering at Michigan State University, and with Lynd, one of the unabashed optimists in the future of cellulosic biofuels, says Lynd “is widely recognized as a thought leader in cellulosic biofuels. He has been enormously influential in his leadership, both nationally and internationally, to define how we can have very large-scale sustainable cellulosic biofuels.”
Riding through bioenergy’s wild swings
Lynd became interested in biofuels as an undergrad at Bates College in Maine in the late 1970s. Working on a farm, he was intrigued by the heat produced by microbial activity in compost heaps. “My original thought was that that heat might be something you could tap into, which I don’t think was a particularly well-informed idea,” he says. “But that led me to the idea that microorganisms that can use plant material that you can’t eat can potentially make fuel. That’s what I’ve been working on ever since.”
Fast forward more than 30 years. Most surprising, he says, “has been the wild swings in the perceived merit of bioenergy. It has gone from something the world has literally ignored to being for about three years the hottest idea out there.” With that interest came more intense scrutiny of bioenergy’s benefits to the environment and concerns over how large-scale development would affect the world’s available land and water resources.
“To me, it’s pretty obvious that the world needs to learn to live more on our resource income rather than our resource capital,” says Lynd. “It’s pretty obvious that cellulosic biomass has got the most potential if we can convert it effectively. And it’s pretty obvious that you could have a sustainable carbon cycle and see rural economic development if you did it right. I would have thought that that was a heaping helping of reasons to say, yeah, this has got potential. Let’s explore it.
“Instead, the whole herd runs to one side of the boat, then leans, and the whole herd runs to the other side of the boat. I’ve been very surprised by how volatile public perception of merit has been.”
‘Kicking the tires’ soon on cellulosic plants
Lynd has championed “consolidated bioprocessing,” a sort of one-pot biofuel processing, and in 2005 started Mascoma Corp. with two colleagues to commercialize the process.
“I think companies are a good way to make things happen in the world,” he says. “Mascoma is trying to create simple, inexpensive processes, where microorganisms ferment cellulose without adding enzymes. That’s called consolidated bioprocessing, and everybody pretty much agrees that if you could get that to work it would be a revolutionary development from an economic point of view.”
Bioengineering will play a key role in developing the organisms needed to both break down cellulose and ferment sugars into fuel. “Basically you can start off with organisms that know how to make the product you want but don’t know how to grow on cellulose,” says Lynd. “Or you can start with organisms that know how to grow on cellulose but don’t know how to make the product you want. The reassuring thing is, all those properties exist in nature. We just need to combine these qualities.”
As various commentators have observed, cellulosic fuel production has always seemed just a few years in the future. But finally, says Lynd, “I think the commercialization train is pulling out of the station.” Several projects are scheduled to break ground or actually begin commercial-scale production this year. Among those is a partnership between Mascoma and Valero Energy Corp. announced in late 2011 that the companies say will employ Mascoma’s proprietary consolidated bioprocessing to convert hardwood pulp into ethanol, producing 20 million gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol. Construction of the Kinross, Mich., plant is scheduled to begin this year with completion by the end of 2013.
Says Lynd, “I think we’re getting to the stage where we’re actually going to have some tires to kick.”
“None of these initial plants will be in their ultimate state of development,” says Lynd. “It’s not particularly logical to evaluate the potential of biomass refining once and for all based on the first-generation plants.”
Which is not to say all is going smoothly. The Sierra Club has filed suit in federal court to stop or delay the Kinross plant. The group says the U.S. Energy Department failed to follow federal environmental law when it approved the refinery.
Looking at what can go right
While the Kinross dust-up is being fought on local issues, bioenergy has run afoul of some environmental groups and some scientists on the grounds that growing biofuels will compete for land with crops and wildlife.
“For some reason the world has been shining a light on lose-lose scenarios with respect to bioenergy, rather than win-win,” says Lynd. To look for win-win solutions, Lynd and others started the Global Sustainable Bioenergy Project. The project is developing and recommending transition paths and policies, that will differ according to economics and cultures, to reconcile large-scale bioenergy production with competing land demands, with the goal of meeting at least a quarter of the world’s transportation needs with biofuels.
Lynd is working now on a report that will estimate that the United States could produce about three-quarters of global fuel production from existing farmland, managed forests, and pasture. “I think there are all sorts of possibilities, and the Global Sustainable Energy Project is shining a light on those,” he says.
Lynd says his optimism is rooted in the proposition that the world will pursue both sustainable, efficient food production and sustainable, efficient bioenergy production. “If you look at all the good things that happen from doing both of them, you get something pretty close to the (United Nations Development Programme) millenium goals. You benefit the urban poor. You benefit the rural poor. You benefit habitat base. You benefit carbon security. You benefit energy security. You benefit economic development. You benefit soil fertility.”
After the agricultural and industrial revolutions, says Lynd, humanity is on the verge of a third.
“I call it the sustainability revolution. And you don’t get through a revolution by extrapolating the past. What you need to do is look for win-win solutions so that you can meet these new challenges. It can be done, but in general people have looked a lot harder at ways it could go wrong than at ways it could go right. We need to use our ingenuity to find the ways to do it right.”