At least two-thirds of a billion dollars is currently being spent in University of California laboratories systemwide to build better biofuels, a massive effort to help the state achieve its ambitious goal of a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020.

Hundreds of UC scientists are investigating how to improve the conversion of plant cellulose into ethanol, the conversion of oilseed into biodiesel, and the conversion of plant and animal waste into liquid, gas or solid energy. They are also engineering faster-growing, higher-yielding crops and algae for biofuel feedstock.

The October-December 2009 issue of UC’s California Agriculture journal includes six peer-reviewed research and review articles on the promise of this biofuel research, as well as the challenge of insuring that food security and natural lands are not adversely affected by a vast expansion of new biofuel crop acreage.

The articles, and related editorial and news coverage on biofuel regulation and research initiatives, are available online at http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.org.

Bryan Jenkins, director of the UC Davis Energy Institute, notes that California could readily produce 30 million tons of renewable biomass for electricity generation, biofuels and industrial processing, the equivalent of 2 billion gallons of gasoline annually.

“From the time humans first learned to control fire a quarter of a million years ago, biomass has served as an important energy resource,” Jenkins and colleagues write in California Agriculture journal. “Although traditional uses are still widely practiced throughout the world and are often associated with undesirable consequences to health and the environment, more modern, sustainable approaches to utilizing biomass offer significant promise for environmental improvement and economic benefit.”

Gov.Schwarzenegger signed the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard in April 2009, which sets targets for replacing an increasing proportion of the fossil fuels used in California with biomass-based fuels. Over the past few years, research funding from state, federal and commercial sources has flowed to UC scientists to help meet this challenge.

Funding for biofuels research at UC includes:

• $25 million from Chevron to the Bioenergy Research Group at UC Davis.

• $800,000 from the California Energy Commission to the California Biomass Collaborative at UC Davis.

• $500 million from BP to UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois.

• $135 million from the Department of Energy to the Joint BioEnergy Institute, a collaboration of LBNL, Sandia National Laboratories, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and the Carnegie Institution for Science, based in the Bay Area.

• $750,000 from the Department of Energy for the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, a partnership of UC San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, The Scripps Research Institute and private industry.

UC policy experts warn that despite billions of dollars spent globally to support biofuels, they may have unintended but real adverse impacts.

“As the world emerges from the first global food crisis in three decades and controversy surrounds the greenhouse-gas savings of biofuels, policymakers have begun to question their promotion of a technology that takes land away from two predominant uses ­ food production and environmental preservation,” writes lead author Steven Sexton and UC Berkeley co-authors in California Agriculture journal.

The October-December 2009 issue of California Agriculture journal also includes the following peer-reviewed research findings (http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.org):

• 4-H record books compiled by members can be used to effectively evaluate county-based 4-H programs.

• Satellite imagery was used to identify nine Central Valley crops with an overall accuracy of 75 percent or more, early enough in the growing season to inform water-use planning.

• California ranchers receive consistently lower prices for cattle than their Midwestern counterparts, based on 11 years of video auction data.