Scientists are examining biomass – plant matter that’s grown and used to generate energy – as a potential power source. Two biomass technologies involve ethanol and electricity. Biomass converted into ethanol, can power internal combustion vehicles. Biomass converted into electricity can fuel a vehicle powered by an electric battery.  A study by University of California, Merced, Assistant Professor Elliott Campbell and two other researchers in the online edition of this week’s Science journal suggests that biomass used to generate electricity could be the more efficient solution.

In the study, Campbell, along with Christopher Field, director of the department of global energy at the Carnegie Institution and David Lobell of Stanford University, the scientists found that biomass converted into electricity produced 81 percent more transportation miles and 108 percent more emissions offsets compared to ethanol.

In other words, said Campbell, vehicles powered by biomass converted into electricity “got further down the road” compared to ethanol. As a result, Campbell continued, “we found that converting biomass to electricity rather than ethanol makes the most sense for two policy-relevant issues, transportation and climate.”

The scientists based their study on two criteria: miles per area cropland and greenhouse gas offsets per area cropland. In both cases, scientists considered a range of feedstock crops, focusing primarily on corn and switchgrass and four vehicle types: small car, midsize car, small SUV and large SUV. Switchgrass is a perennial grass native to North America and is a good feedstock crop to grow as biomass because it is resistant to many pests and plant diseases and it is capable of producing high yields with very low applications of fertilizer.

First, they looked at how many miles a range of vehicles powered by ethanol could travel versus a range of electric vehicles fueled by electricity. Second, they examined offsets to greenhouse gas emissions for ethanol and bioelectricity. Land use is an important factor to consider when evaluating each method. Globally, the amount of land available to grow biomass crops is limited. Using existing croplands for biofuels could cause increases in food prices and clearing new land, or deforestation, can have a negative impact on the environment.

The authors are careful to point out their study looked at two criteria, transportation and greenhouse gas offsets, but did not examine the performance of electricity and ethanol for other policy relevant criteria.

“We also need to compare these options for other issues such as water consumption, air pollution and economic costs,” Campbell said.

Campbell joined UC Merced as an assistant professor in the School of Engineering in 2008. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Stanford University and his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. Prior to joining UC Merced, Campbell received national attention for another study that concluded the United States Could meet up to 6 percent of its energy needs with biofuels produced on abandoned or degraded agricultural land.

© 2009, Tracey de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Tracey de Morsella (323 Articles)

Tracey de Morsella started her career working as an editor for US Technology Magazine. She used that experience to launch Delaware Valley Network, a publication for professionals in the Greater Philadelphia area. Years later, she used the contacts and resources she acquired to work in executive search specializing in technical and diversity recruitment. She has conducted recruitment training seminars for Wachovia Bank, the Department of Interior and the US Postal Service. During this time, she also created a diversity portal called The Multicultural Advantage and published the Diversity Recruitment Advertising Toolkit, a directory of recruiting resources for human resources professionals. Her career and recruitment articles have appeared in numerous publications and web portals including Woman Engineer Magazine,, Job Search Channel, Workplace Diversity Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management web site, NSBE Engineering Magazine,, and Human Resource Consultants Association Newsletter. Her work with technology professionals drew her to pursuing training and work in web development, which led to a stint at Merrill Lynch as an Intranet Manager. In March, she decided to combine her technical and career management expertise with her passion for the environment, and with her husband, launched The Green Economy Post, a blog providing green career information and covering the impact of the environment, sustainable building, cleantech and renewable energy on the US economy. Her sustainability articles have appeared on Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation, Chem.Info,FastCompany and CleanTechies.

  • lewis

    “Biomass converted into ethanol, a corn-based fuel, can power internal combustion vehicles.”


    Ethanol is another name for ethyl alcohol, which can be extracted from MANY sources, not just corn!

    • admin

      Hey Lewis:
      Thank you for finding that error We have corrected it. Tracey

  • Jerry Toman

    The importance of this study cannot be overemphasized (if confirmed). It concludes that a parcel of agricultural land would better serve us if we harvested and burned the biomass that can be grown on it to produce electricity, which could used to recharge the batteries on an EV, rather than ferment the biomass grown on it to ethanol, for use in conventional autos.

    It would be important to find out if it takes into account the byproducts of ethanol production such as distiller’s grains and stovers, etc. The advantage becomes even greater if the electricity is used for mass transit instead of for use in private EVs.

    However, if an even cheaper and less polluting method of producing electricity can be developed (e.g., the AVE), then the land could be either returned to its natural state, or used to produce food (for people, not cattle which evolved to eat grass, not grain).

    It also makes one wonder if biofuel producers using algae might not be better off using more hardy strains that maximize total calories, rather than ones that maximize oil content, which not only requires further refining, but may be subject to contamination.

    Once separated and dried, it could be easily pelletized and/or transported in railcars to populated areas, where it could be burned in regular or pressurized, fluid-bed, combustion chambers.