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Based on a review of bioenergy research and emerging technologies, we reported in March 2006 that a great deal of new technology was in various stages of development that had the potential to dramatically transform rural economies within the relatively near future. We also indicated that biomass energy offered considerable opportunity for owners and managers of Minnesota’s farms and forests, with production of liquid transportation fuels offering the greatest potential. In August 2007, after a more extensive look at bioenergy research and development globally, we again described bioenergy as a substantial opportunity for Minnesota, and particularly for production of both liquid biofuels and biochemicals. We also discussed the biorefinery concept – a vision of a network of integrated manufacturing plants, capable of producing a variety of energy, chemical, and fiber products from wood and other forms of biomass; this is an idea that has been explored by scientists for at least 90 years, aggressively pursued by commercial interests in northern Europe since the mid-1980s, and more recently promoted and financed by governments worldwide.

Despite the reality that biodiesel was made from pulping liquor in Germany as long ago as 1920, wood-derived ethanol was extensively produced in Europe in the 1940s, and a wide range of chemicals and energy have been produced from woody biomass by pulp and paper mills worldwide for the better part of a century, commercialization of technologies needed for present day biorefinery viability remains elusive. Is it all just a dream that will never be realized? When might technical and economic feasibility of second-generation fuels occur? What products are likely to go into large-scale commercial production first? These are a few of the questions that people are asking regarding the likely future of biochemicals and second-generation biofuels production.

This report examines the current status of second-generation biofuels and biorefinery development globally, and in North America and the Upper Midwest in particular. We begin by looking at current uses of biomass-derived energy in various parts of the world, regional trends, and national and regional priorities for development of transportation biofuels vs. other forms of bioenergy. We then focus on progress toward second generation fuels and biochemicals and near-term prospects for biorefinery commercialization. Our review reveals considerable technological progress, current production of a number of biofuel and biochemical products on pilot and limited commercial scales, and optimism that large-scale commercialization of at least portions of the biorefinery concept is not far away.

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