Cellulosic Ethanol no longer in its infancy

Cellulosic Ethanol no longer in its infancy


Thanks to Justin and company for welcoming me on here as a regular contributor. I will be posting on a number of issues, but one area you can expect that I will regularly be tracking is technology related developments and how they interact with the political world and policy. I also live less than ten miles from the Nebraska/Iowa border, so I’ll try to keep an eye on 2012 developments as the contenders test the waters there as well, on top of other interests like election reform, social issues, polling analysis and any number of things that I come across while skimming the hundreds of tweets and RSS feeds I go through every day. I hope you enjoy it, and now… on with the show!

We’ve been hearing about cellulosic ethanol for several years now, generally with the caveat that were at least a few years, and a few scientific breakthroughs, away from it coming to market and helping wean us from foreign oil. Unlike corn, which breaks down into the sugars necessary to be processed into ethanol relatively easily, cellulose is a hardy material that takes time and energy to break down. Its upside is that there happens to be more cellulose present than any other organic molecule on the planet. This is why millions upon millions of dollars has been poured into cellulosic ethanol research, genetically modifying naturally occurring enzymes to break it down faster and looking for ways to bring the price per gallon down closer to the price of gasoline.

Unlike corn, which takes land out of food production, is inefficient as far as how much energy it takes to produce and is a high maintenance crop, finding raw material for a cellulosic plant is easy. Wood chips from sawmills, the kudzu scourge spreading through the hot and humid Southeast, agricultural waste and even up to 80 percent of what ends up in our landfills could be used to make cellulosic ethanol.  Thankfully, the millions of dollars in research and development have begun to bear fruit.

First cellulosic ethanol pump in the worldA gas station near Ottawa is the first in the world to begin selling a cellulosic blend, called CE-10, to the public. Iogen, the company behind the demonstration plant that produced the fuel, plans to build its first full scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Saskatchewan. It has reached an agreement with the local government and Royal Dutch Shell to convert an old Mill site to their purposes, with the government even agreeing to purchase any green energy produced at the site. The running demonstration plant only has the capacity to produce about 3 million liters of ethanol each year, using wheat straw agricultural waste, while the new plant will be able to pump out about 75 million liters. It will make use of a more diverse feed stock, including agricultural waste from other crops, grasses native to nearby areas and even wood chips from area mills.

The march of progress continues, with a number of large companies making big investments into these technologies. Last year GM purchased a large share of Coskata, a big player in the emerging cellulosic ethanol industry, who claims to have developed a process that simplefies the complex and costly process of breaking down cellulose and brings the cost of production down to being competitive with gasoline. There are as many as two dozen companies with plans to build plants similar to Iogen’s, but the economic downturn is effecting their ability to finance these projects. Coskata is hoping to get some stimulus money, in the form of loan guarantees, to help finance its plant, with an estimated production of 50-100 million gallons a year.

As President Obama often says, if we intend to be a leader in the green energy industry of tomorrow, we need to move boldly in that direction today. Now is not the time to let companies who wish to lead us in there falter because of financing problems. Some are talking about a new stimulus bill, which most people reasonably see as a terrible idea, that would focus on these kinds of projects and job creation. The first should have done so, and I have little confidence that a new one would make it through congress without being similarly unfocused and pork laden.

We don’t get too many of these chances, where we can kill three birds with one stone. Job creation, independence from foreign oil and environmental progress can all be had with some smart funding priorities. Lets hope the administration recognizes this in time.

  • the Word

    Curious if you know what the possibility of using hemp for this would be since I would think it would be a perfect match.

  • Solomon Kleinsmith

    I’m having a hard time finding a source to answer your question that is credible and isn’t biased. Plenty of people tout hemp, mostly people commenting on articles about other feedstocks, but I’m not finding research on it. I know hemp is a decent, although not nearly the best, feedstock for biodiesel. Here is a link with a chart (near the bottom) with levels of oil per hectare, which shows where hemp stands in that respect:


    Buried in this congressional testimony is a mentioning of hemp, but its not clear as to how it is rated in comparison to the other feedstocks:


    Since some other countries don’t have the same laws as ours, I would almost assume that someone would have done some research into the benefits of hemp over other feedstocks if it looked promising. The US is not the only country doing research on this. Also, even if hemp produced more cellulose, which may be true, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be better, as each plant needs to have a specially designed enzyme made for it to more quickly break it down. Some plants have less sugars and are harder to extract those sugars from, so until I see some real science on this, consider me curious but skeptical. Also, any plant, even weeds like hemp, will require that the soil they grow on is replenished with nutrients if it is harvested frequently, so the argument that some commenters on other sites make that it is so low maintenance is also somewhat off base.

    I think fast growing seaweed should be explored more. It wouldn’t have to take up any land, and there is an infestation of a particularly nasty varient off the west coast now that could be useful. Agricultural waste and wood chips from mills are also good, as they’ll just be tossed out anyway. The same goes for trash… if 80% of what we throw away could be converted, how amazing would it be if we had a special colored bag to put our bio waste into, and it would be picked up with our trash and taken to the local cellulosic plant, saving landfill space AND producing fuel instead of rotting in the sun.

    Regardless, I’ll continue to keep my eyes open for developments on all alternative fuel sources. So keep tuning in here for updates!

  • the Word

    Thanks for the reply. I learned a lot.

  • kranky kritter

    Welcome Solomon.

    I am strongly in favor of research into alternative energy derived from renewable resources. I am also strongly in favor of such research being ruthlessly science-driven, not politics driven. In other words, I want all research to set the bar really high when it comes to acid tests on the long-term viability of such alternative sources, especially for wide-scale use. And as always, you have to count everything. I can’t stress that enough.

    My first thought on using let’s call it scrap or waste cellulose is that one really big challenge for wide-scale production is gathering those scraps efficiently. The costs of gathering the scraps have to be included in any estimate of how useful this approach is. At the same time, I am fine with some leniency in projections. In other words, it’s Ok to build in a bit of rosiness by assuming future efficiency as the scale ramps up.

    As a long-time gardener, my first thought on using things such as kudzu is that the quicker something grows big, the less likely that plant seems to be storing useful masses of concentrated long-term energy. In other words, plants that get big fast seem to rely mostly on water. For folks still wondering what I am on about I guess maybe a comparison between corn and celery is sort of apt.

    It takes a full season and lots of nutrients to produce the concentrated energy of corn kernels, and those kernels are a small percentage of the total plant mass. Various weedy waste plants that grow to a large size quickly tend (in my experience) to be more like celery. When you uproot them, they wither to nothing pretty quickly because their mass and volume was mostly water, and when that evaporates, there’s not much left.

    So I continue to look on at what folks are trying as we attempt to identify optimum plant sources for energy.

    Seaweed seems like a really good idea to me because of the “low hanging fruit” aspect of it. Obviously fossil fuels have been the ultimate low-hanging fruit because they are basically Earth’s sum total of the energy stored by millions of years worth of dead plants. Conceivably, seaweed could be harvested at low cost and without the need to devote giant areas of land mass.

    In contrast to things like seaweed and waste cellulose, other efforts start with a substantial handicap if that effort must include growing some plant from scratch.

    Hemp? Compare that to corn. TI bet that the buds are the areas where stored energy is at its highest concentration. It’s nice to hope that with any plant we can keep using the part we like for food (and “recreation”) and use only the undesirable part to make fuel. But if we only use the parts that are less energy-dense for fuel, then we have a steeper hill to climb.

    Just as using corn-based ethanol for fuel can drive the price of corn for food higher, using hemo for fuel could drive the cost of pot higher. Of course, that could be offset by legalization.

  • Tully

    Cellulosic ethanol compares favorably and is already cost-competitive at roughly $2-$2.50/gallon gas-equivalent pricing. One major cellulosic plant under construction in western Kansas and also a pilot plant going in a dozen miles or so from me in central Kansas.

    Also approaching cost-competitive viability (but not quite there YET) is algal oil production, which produces petroleum-equivalent raw oil that can be processed into gasoline & deisel and such in our current refineries, only cleaner with less “bad” byproducts from refining.

    Both of these are carbon-neutral or close to, that is, they generate no more atmospheric carbon than they remove from the atmosphere. Unlike fossil fuels. Many of the hair-shirt crowd still hate them because they hate internal combustion engines in general.

    And let’s not forget T. Boone’s coming fire sale on wind tubines…nice supplemental sourcing, even if not dependable for constant generation. Without tax credits, not current cost-effective compared to other power sources. And there’s also nuclear.

    Less carbon-neural are sugar ethanols, which frankly don’t make much sense for the US, however much it appeals to Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill. Brazil can get some real mileage out of them, but they use cane sugars, not primary feedstocks.

    For non-carbon neutral, we’re the freakin’ Saudi Arabia of coal, which can be converted to petroleum-equivalent fuel and is cost-effective at current oil prices. The idea that we’re running out of fuel is bogus. We have enbough coal in the U.S. alone to last for centuries at current consumption rates. The question is how much we want to go after it and use it.

    We’ve also got considerable oil reserves that are kept out of exploration and production by the government. The standard excuse to keep them that way is that it would take a decade to get them up to speed. That excuse has been used for over thirty years now. Do the math.

  • Agnostick

    A gas station near Ottowa is the first in the world to begin selling a cellulosic blend, called CE-10, to the public.

    Ottawa, Kansas?


  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds

    I am very concerned by this whole idea of cellulite-derived energy.

    Yes, we have major cellulite deposits throughout our population but is anyone giving any thought to the human rights aspects of cellulite mining?

    For now advocates promise we’d only use the cellulite already destined to be wasted by liposuction clinics. But no one believes this will address more than a small percentage of our needs. And then what?

    People, we are on a slippery slope to a day when cars might come equipped with sharp probes capable of spearing, then draining the cellulite from, ordinary people as they leave the Cheesecake Factory, or head toward the Dress Barn.

    Is this the kind of future we want for our kids? A future where their thighs and buttocks and bellies could be harvested against their will in order to feed our insatiable need for SUV’s?

    That’s not the American I know and love.

  • Tully

    LMAO, michael.

  • theWord

    Solomon has obviously got to go. He took a complex subject. Explained it well…there seems to be consensus that we need to do it and that we need to do it right. It also appears that we all want to follow the science of it and not any preconceived ideas. He’s going to really screw up the discourse model :-)

    So that we can perhaps stray back into argument here. Curious what many of the red states that are major oil producers think about where oil comes from. kranky used that ridiculous view of where it comes from being millions of years old when as any Texan running their education department would say “Fool, the world is only 6,000 years old” :-)

    (Ignorance is one thing but when you put it in charge of an educational system it is frightening to some of us.)

  • Solomon Kleinsmith

    Should have been more clear apparently… Ottowa, Ontario :)

    And if we pay for health reform like I think we should (see my two part post coming later), hopefully we’ll see our ‘reserves’ of cellulite diminish… there still should be enough to supply ourselves with Tyler Derden brand silky smooth soaps though… haha

  • ExiledIndependent

    I’d be happy to donate cellulite. It’s neighborly.

  • Megan Heckenlively

    Nice Work Sol!!!
    I think cellulosic gasoline would be a good alternative to corn based fuels, because of how the land becomes degradated and the amount of pestacides that are used. Another great advantage of cellulosic gasoline is that there are far fewer emissions when burned.