Next generation biorefineries will solve the food, biofuels, and environmental trilemma in the energy–food–water nexus


  • Y.-H Percival Zhang

    Corresponding author
    1. Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS), Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia
    2. Gate Fuels Inc., Blacksburg, Virginia
    3. Cell-Free Bioinnovations Inc., Blacksburg, Virginia
    • Biological Systems Engineering Department, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia
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Yi-Heng Percival Zhang, Biological Systems Engineering Department, Virginia Tech, 304 Seitz Hall, Blacksburg, VA 24061. Tel: 001-540-231-7414; Fax: 001-540-231-3199; E-mail:


The future roles of biomass and carbohydrate for meeting needs of food/feed, renewable materials, and transportation fuels (biofuels) remain controversial due to numerous issues, such as increasing food and feed needs, constraints of natural resources (land, water, phosphate, biomass, etc.), and limitations of natural photosynthesis, as well as competing energy conversion pathways and technologies. The goal of this opinion article is to clarify the future roles of biomass and biorefineries using quantitative data other than adjective words. In most scenarios, human beings could have enough biomass resource from plant photosynthesis for meeting the three goals at the same time: feeding 9 billion people, providing renewable materials, and producing transportation biofuels that could replace nearly all fossil fuel-based liquid fuels used in the land transportation in 2050. Land transport means will pass through transitions from internal combustion engines plus liquid fuels, to hybrid systems, to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), while battery electric vehicles (BEVs) could play a minor role. Next generation biorefineries based on artificial photosynthesis featuring ultra-high energy efficiency and low-water consumption could produce a large amount of carbohydrate and/or other biocommodities from hydrogen/electricity and CO2. In conclusion, it is time to develop next generation biorefineries, which will efficiently utilize nonfood biomass for the coproduction of multiple products from biofuels, biochemicals, to food/feed, and even store electricity/hydrogen by fixing CO2 to carbon-containing chemicals and biofuels. Next generation biorefineries will address the food, biofuels, and environment trilemma at the same time.