The US plans a biomass supply chain for Biden’s biomanufacturing push

In 2022, the US Biden administration launched the country’s first ever nationwide bioeconomy plan, the National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative.

In mid-March 2024, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) published one of the bioeconomy plan’s early deliverables: a report on how to build a raw materials supply chain needed for scaled biomanufacturing.

The report, titled Building a Resilient Biomass Supply: A Plan to Enable the Bioeconomy in America, identifies the US’ raw material potential as well as bottlenecks to scaling the bioeconomy, including the regulation and infrastructure needed to get biomass flowing into industry. We dive into its contents for key recommendations.

How much biomass will the US have?

The National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing initiative of 2022 committed $2 billion to raise its capacity in high-value goods manufactured from biological resources, such as alternative proteins, pharmaceutical biotech, and sustainable farming inputs.

The plan tasked the USDA, along with a raft of other government agencies, with preparing a preliminary report on how to implement the initiative, resulting in the USDA’s recent Building a Resilient Biomass Supply report.

The report begins with a fundamental question: how much biomass will be available for use in bio-manufacturing in 2040?

To answer this, the USDA supply chain report drew heavily on biomass supply estimates made by the US Department of Energy’s (DoE) 2016 stock take. In its 2016 calculations, the DoE estimates that by 2040 the US will have 365 million tonnes of biomass at its disposal if we account for mature, conventional sources. These are mainly wood and corn ethanol – traditional feedstocks that the US bioeconomy has drawn on, primarily for bioenergy.

Under-developed sources

However, these conventional sources will not be enough if the US bioeconomy is to grow as well as diversify away from bioenergy and into food ingredients, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural inputs, as the US bioeconomy plan envisages.

To maximise feedstock availability, the US bioeconomy will also have to draw on currently under-utilised, and low-value non-food crops. Bringing these into the supply chain could ease land competition between bio-industries and agri-business that produces food for human consumption.

If these under-developed sources are utilised, the DoE forecasted that US 2040 biomass supply rises to 1.2 billion tonnes. This potential 826 million tonne increase would come from sources like woody biomass from forestry, agricultural residues, wastes, and under-utilised, lesser known biomass energy crops that are not yet market-mature but could become more developed over the coming decades. This depends on bringing non-conventional sources like woody biomass as well as lesser-known crops like camelina, pennycress, and carinata into the supply chain at scale.

These supply estimates provided by the DoE does not express the total national tonnes of the material harvested from the field. Rather, it expresses only the fraction of harvestable biomass available for industrial use (there are competing uses for the material). Further, they are restricted to the amount of biomass that can be used at a sustainable level – you can only draw on so much biomass without having damaging impacts on the environment and this limit was taken into account.

Emerging sources?

Then there is the potential to boost the biomass supply further with emerging supplies that are very far from scaled market readiness.

The 2016 DoE supply estimates that the supply chain report used did not account for these: macroalgae (recognized as a large potential source of biomass), oilseed crops, hazardous fuels, natural disaster salvage, urban wood waste, utility maintenance treatments, and non-marketable biomass from forest restoration treatments.

Although these emerging sources were included in the most recent March 2024 update to the DoE biomass supply stock-take, this data was not published at the time the supply chain report was being compiled.

Getting to 1 billion tonnes means market-building

Unconventional biomass sources do not just expand the volume of raw material available to industry – they make it possible to expand the supply more sustainably.

The USDA report acknowledges that expanding biomass use for non-food biomanufacturing can affect food security by driving up commodity prices. Under-utilised crops are vital in this as these species can be grown as cover-crops on existing farmland or on poor quality land unsuitable for growing food.

However, scaling any new market confronts a recurring dilemma: suppliers will not commit resources to new forms of production until they know there’s a market to sell into, and one that is big enough to make back their investments.

The US bioeconomy is no exception: farmers will not change crops or expand acreage if they do not think they will find buyers. This makes for a daunting barrier in scaling non-conventional plant materials.

For example, perennial grasses, shrub willow and hemp could all be valuable and potentially sustainable feedstocks for the US bioeconomy but are low-value plantings today as demand is low.

Agriculture is a high-risk low returns venture at the best of times. The high costs of planting new crops that take months to mature and potentially years to make returns means stable regulation is of paramount importance in encouraging biomass providers to get on board with the bioeconomy plan.

To convince investors and farmers to take the leap, the report encourages policymakers to lay out long term policy and regulatory guidelines specifically for the bioeconomy plan that lessens producer risk and incentivises participation. The USDA has already stated that it is working out how they develop existing and new incentives programmes that can help achieve this.

The report also says that producer risk can also be reduced through promotion of cooperatives, financial safety nets for value-chain capacity building, and development of markets for co-products.

Uncertainties around the economics of woody biomass

Certainty around robust market demand is one factor influencing business decisions by farmers and landowners. Another is the economic viability of producing certain crops.

Even if demand for low-value but sustainable biomass were to exist, the costs of growing them may exceed those to transport, store, and preprocess them. Getting down the costs of transforming raw biomass into useful substances at cost requires investment in new technologies and infrastructures adapted to these particular crops.

This point about infrastructure applies heavily to woody biomass. This category of feedstock refers to any forest residue or wood mill waste as well as deadwood from plantations and forests that would otherwise go to waste.

Science and policymaking have singled out woody biomass as a potentially large and sustainable source of feedstock for the bioeconomy. However, preprocessing this feedstock, which is often of uneven quality, is one of the most costly aspects of current biomass supply systems. The economics of full industrial biobased value chains based around woody biomass have also simply not been tested at scale in the US. This means there is little concrete understanding about how to make them viable.

Steps have been taken to explore and refine the economics of woody biomass supply chains. The Idaho National Laboratory has developed a test bed centre for just this purpose named the Biomass Feedstock National User Facility (BFNUF) to allow the industry to explore new preprocessing routes that can efficiently turn variable organic matter into industry-ready feedstock.

Logistics: from farm to factory

After assessing potential biomass tonnage, the report details how the US can build up the logistics that connect farms to bio-industries.

Raw volumes of biomass are all well and good but how it gets collected, transported, sorted, and prepared for industrial use is also critical. Effective logistical infrastructure and processes will determine whether biomass actually gets valorised.

Regional biomass depots, it says, are all important in this. They would allow for the aggregation of biomass raw material from various sites and can even conduct basic preprocessing for converting diverse biomass into fungible feedstocks. By allowing for a single point of collection and preprocessing, regional depots can reduce the costs of moving material to centralised biorefineries, which themselves should be located near transport hubs.

Depots can act as critical infrastructure nodes, a place where raw feedstock made of diverse materials and from different sources throughout the surrounding region – cultivated crops and waste streams – get turned into a consistent product ready for biorefineries to order. Strategically sited depots, within easy access of multiple feedstock sources, offer centralisation. This lowers capital costs compared to building multiple sites through a region.

The longer frame

There is still a long way to go before we see the US bioeconomy plan translate into more biobased production capacity on the ground as it remains in its planning stages. The plan tasked many government agencies to conduct around 40 scoping missions on the policy, economic, and technological aspects of the new bioeconomy. Only a few have so far been completed.

However, as the size of the raw material pool and supply chain infrastructures are major limiting factors on bioeconomy scaling, the USDA report marks an important step in planning for implementation.

In the final instance, the bioeconomy plan will also need support from and cohesion with other domains of policy. A good example is agriculture, where policymakers need to assess the kinds of crops, technologies, and economic support will be needed to hit 1.2 billion tonnes of biomass in a more volatile climate.