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Sustainable Bioenergy


The NIFA Division of Bioenergy supports the development of regional systems for sustainable production of bioenergy and biobased products. It works to implement dedicated regional energy crop systems that materially deliver liquid transportation biofuels to help meet the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 goal of 36 billion gallons/year of biofuels by 2022 and reduce the national dependence on foreign oil. 

Grants administered by the division support sustainable biomass production, genomic improvements of bioenergy feedstocks, logistics of handling feedstocks, biomass conversion, product development, and programs that facilitate and clarify land-use changes resulting from feedstock production. Additional program activities seek to identify the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of biofuels in rural communities.

For renewable energy, the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative (AFRI) supports work along three tracks:  (1) Education of the future workforce, (2) fundamental research to open new possibilities, and (3) integrated projects. Integrated AFRI projects focus on the assembly of bioenergy regional systems, research to evaluate land use, feedstocks, and processing technologies to evaluate bioenergy systems using life cycle analysis and environmental assessments for sustainable renewable energy production. For more information, link to the AFRI Sustainable Bioenergy program long-term vision f.

Plant Feedstock Genomics Program

The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Biological and Environmental Research has teamed up with NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative to fund projects that accelerate plant-breeding programs and improve biomass feedstocks by characterizing the genes, proteins, and molecular interactions that influence biomass production. DOE and USDA initiated this competitive grant program in 2006 to support fundamental research in biomass genomics. Ultimately, the research seeks to develop and demonstrate environmentally acceptable crops and cropping systems for producing large quantities of low-cost, high-quality biomass feedstocks. Specific focus areas include: elucidating the regulation of genes, proteins, and metabolites to for improved productivity, processing, or growth characteristics in marginal environmental conditions, such as drought or salt tolerance; developing novel technologies to facilitate the analysis and manipulation of cell wall structure and composition for both breeding and basic research; using genomic approaches that lead to the identification of genetic markers enabling more efficient plant breeding or manipulation; and enhancing fundamental knowledge of the structure, function, and organization of plant genomes leading to improved biomass characterization.

Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)

This program provides funding opportunities in 10 topical areas for small businesses in the United States. SBIR Phase I grants are limited to $100,000 for an eight-month duration. Phase II grants are limited to $500,000 over 24 months and are only open to previous Phase I awardees. For Sustainable Bioenergy, topical areas addressed include:


The objectives of the SBIR Program are to:

  • Stimulate technological innovations in the private sector;
  • Strengthen the role of small businesses in meeting Federal research and development needs;
  • Increase private sector commercialization of innovations derived from USDA-supported research and development efforts; and
  • Foster and encourage participation by women-owned and socially and economically disadvantaged small business firms in technological innovations.


In addition to reducing our nation's dependence on oil, renewable energy is reinvigorating rural America.

Though most attention has been focused on corn and soybean biofuels to substantially reduce America's dependence on imported oil, biofuels will need to be made from cellulosic processes that use feedstocks such as specialty crop biomass, switch grass, corn stover, straw, and other woody biomass. Some cellulosic conversion processes have been scientifically demonstrated to be capable of producing biofuels and other energy.

NIFA contributes to the President's goal of energy independence with a portfolio of both competitive and noncompetitive grant programs supporting bioenergy activities, conducted primarily at land grant colleges and universities. NIFA support has helped researchers develop biocatalysts and thermochemical technologies that are valuable in converting lignocellulosic biomass to biofuels, design optimum biomass for biofuel production, and produce many value-added biobased industrial products.

Biodiesel Fuel Education Program

The Biodiesel Education Program (Section 9006) was created to help the biodiesel industry grow by providing technical information about this new fuel to a broad spectrum of U.S. consumers and producers. This program is operated through cooperation between the Office of the Chief Economist (OCE) and NIFA. Education materials and outreach activities deliver information on the environmental benefits of biodiesel, and expert guidance is provided on producing biodiesel, maintaining fuel quality, and ensuring fuel safety. Since the Program began in 2003, the U.S. biodiesel industry has grown from just a few firms to over 150 firms today. Awareness of biodiesel among Americans has increased markedly over the past 10 years—consumer awareness of biodiesel has grown from 27%in 2003 to 86% today. At the onset of the Program, many engine manufacturers were apprehensive about using biodiesel, but now, nearly 60% of U.S. manufacturers support the use of biodiesel blends in at least some of their equipment. While the Program has been a major success, education is needed more than ever, with the biodiesel industry ramping up to meet record production levels, set by the RFS2 mandates.

Sun Grant Initiative Program (SGI)

Authorized under the Research Title of the Farm Bill, SGI began 10 years ago with support from USDA to harness the capacities of the land-grant universities to develop bioenergy and biobased products through regional collaboration, coordinated through five regional Sun Grant Centers. With support from USDA/NIFA, DOE and the Department of Transportation (DOT) the SGI has over 130 field studies on biomass feedstocks currently underway with locations in more than 75% of the states in the nation. SGI research has been a catalyst for attracting industry investments that have resulted in formation of new businesses and creation of new jobs in the bioenergy sector. For example, in the Southeastern SGI Region, SGI supported projects that led to the DuPont Danisco joint venture partnership with the University of Tennessee and General Energy to open a demonstration-scale facility producing lignocellulosic ethanol. Over 7,000 acres of switchgrass are in production and under contract to support this demonstration-conversion facility, which is being utilized to develop a commercial scale facility by 2013 that has a production capacity of 25-50 million gallons of ethanol. In the North Central Region, Sun Grant-supported research led to DuPont Danisco deciding to locate a cellulosic ethanol production facility in Iowa. Similar collaborations are underway in each SGI Region with Sun Grant-supported research leading to commercialization of new feedstock varieties for production of advanced biofuels.