The British government and 15 businesses including Royal Dutch Shell and SABMiller have directed 27 million pounds (US$38.10 million) for research on new biofuels that do not use up food.
It is Britain’s biggest ever public investment in bioenergy.
The money will fund research at six centres around Britain with the goal of replacing petrol in cars with fuels derived from willow, straw and other non-food crops, government officials and scientists said.
Focusing on these plants along with industrial and agricultural waste – such as unused corn husks – offers the potential to provide a major source of clean, low-carbon energy without using up farmland needed to produce food, they added.
“The challenge for biofuels is whether we can make the fuels sustainable and efficient enough,” Britain’s Science Minister Lord Paul Drayson told reporters.
“So in this sense this is a very smart investment and addressing a demand that is already there.”
Biofuels are mainly produced from food crops such as wheat, maize, sugar cane and vegetable oils.
Advocates see them as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change but some environmental groups have argued they may worsen the problem by contributing to the destruction of rainforests.
Europe is looking to biofuels to help cut greenhouse gas emissions with the European Parliament mandating that 10 per cent of EU transport fuel should come from renewable sources by 2020.
The investment in the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council can help meet this target with a locally grown fuel source that could help prevent destruction of rainforests, those involved in the project said.
“At the moment we make biofuels from food crops,” said Angela Karp a scientist at Rothamsted Research, one of the six research centres. “This diverts crops from the food chain and it takes intensive energy to grow the crops.”
The researchers are first focusing on willow and straw, looking for ways to boost their yields and figure out how best to extract the sugars that can be turned into fuel.
A hurdle is that it is harder to tap sugars from these plants than from food crops such as maize and different ways to do this efficiently need to be sought, the researchers said.