Commercial cellulosic ethanol sooner than you think

There’s a couple of things going against ethanol as a mainstream alternative fuel (if that’s not too much of a contradictory term).

1) In the US, it’s mostly made from corn, which is inefficient and fuels the food vs fuel argument.

2) The transport issue. It’s not possible to move it around in pipelines as it is with petroleum.

The light at the end of the pipeline, the chance to make quite a bit of this better, is cellulosic ethanol. Instead of being made from corn it’s made from organic matter, stuff that would be otherwise considered waste. Not only does it remove the food vs fuel argument (except in the eyes of some herbivore forest creatures) it’s also much more efficient in producing the fuel.

And finally, with the advent of this announcement, the issue of transport will be partially addressed as well.

When I went to the Australian launch for BioPower back in January we had a scientist from the CSIRO there, who told Rico and I that cellulosic probably wasn’t a realistic commercial option here in Australia within his lifetime. Well, it may not be here, but it looks like there will be commercially available cellulosic ethanol much sooner rather than later.

July 2, 2007 –Range Fuels announced today that the company was awarded a construction permit from the state of Georgia to build the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States. Ground breaking will take place this summer in Treutlen County, Georgia for a 100-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant that will use wood waste from Georgia’s forests as its feedstock. Phase 1 of the plant is scheduled to complete construction in 2008 with a production capacity of 20 million gallons a year.

20 million gallons per year is a drop in the ocean. Acually, even at a full capacity of 100 million litres a year it’s still small potatoes in terms of the US market.

The good thing about this, though, is that the process Range Fuels uses is quite scalable and can be reproduced in bigger or smaller production facilities to come in the future.

Range have successfully tested their process on multiple feedstocks, too, so there won’t be wholesale use of and dependence on one source only.

This is all good news for E85, which will eventually translate into good news for Saab as well (if they can get their cars into the US market some time soon).

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Thanks Gripen!

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10 Comments

  1. A minor correction: you wrote “100 million litres” when I think you meant “U.S. gallons”.

    This first commercial Range Fuels cellulosic ethanol production facility will use waste wood chips as the fuel source, but most commonly people point to “switch grass” as being the best source of cellulosic ethanol:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Switch_grass

    Seems to me the ideal plant would be something that grows really fast like a weed. If industrial hemp weren’t illegal to grow in the U.S. it might be a perfect source of cellulosic ethanol (no snickers, please: industrial hemp contains very little THC, meaning it’d be less effective to smoke than dried banana peels).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_hemp

    Even the corn farmers could get in on the cellulosic thing: rather than only being able to convert the corn kernels into ethanol as it now stands, they could feed the stocks and shucks into the process, yielding far more ethanol per acre (or hectare) of land.

    In Great Britain they’re looking to convert sugar beets into ethanol. I would think this would yield far more ethanol than corn, but I could be wrong. I just saw a documentary on the history of candy making which stated that due to the inability to grow sugar in northern climates and the extreme expense in importing sugar from the colonies, Europe was able to bring candy to the everyman by turning to the sugar beet as a source of sucrose, which could be grown in their climates.

  2. The anti-food-for-fuel people had some propaganda going about six months ago (falsely) blaming the rise in tortilla prices in Mexico on the rise in corn prices due to ethanol production. This was patently false (the rise was due to increased demand in Mexico, and they use NONE of their corn for ethanol production. They had to suspend tariffs on imported corn from the U.S. where we DO use corn for ethanol) to try to drive the price of corn in Mexico DOWN), but that didn’t stop various mainstream news outlets from picking up on this sensational story.

    There were then later claims that ethanol production is driving up the price of tequila because the farmers in Mexico who normally plant agave for production of tequila are moving to corn to cash-in on the higher price of corn now. As I stated before, the increase in the price of corn is due to increased demand, not ethanol production, so it’s not fair to blame the rise in the price of tequila on the production of ethanol.

    Now I’m hearing stories on the news about the price of beer in the U.S. on the rise. Now THIS one might have some truth to it. The claim is that due to the rise in price of corn due to demand of its use in the production of ethanol some farmers who usually plant barley used in the production of beer are planting corn instead.

    I have trust in the free market system and there will be a natural tipping point. When the demand for beer rises and the supply decreases, the price will also rise and then farmers will go back to barley.

    Like you point-out, Swade: it seems like using a non-feedstock food such as switch grass or hemp would have extremely high yields, would replenish itself extremely quickly, and would be ideal in that it wouldn’t drive up the price of any feedstock crops like barley.

    I find hemp very interesting (and note I don’t smoke marijuana…) for industrial purposes and find it mad that we in the U.S. have such a fear of its cousin marijuana that we won’t allow large-scale industrial hemp cultivation. Hemp was Canada’s most profitable crop last year. See “future of hemp” in the article at Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_hemp#Future_of_hemp

    I’m no hippie, but I can see that this could be a very important crop if people could get over the fact that it’s a close relative to marijuana. Heck, there was a time when farmers were mandated to grow hemp. George Washington grew hemp. Hemp can even be used to make biodiesel fuel…

  3. You really have immersed yourself in this subject, haven’t you Gripen? 🙂 I’ve noticed your posts for some time regarding biofuels… and really anything with the environment seems to get ya going for that matter… 😛

  4. Yes, RJ. I think that it’s crazy that we’re still running petroleum-based fuels in internal combustion engines. I see “alternative fuels” as a bridge toward truly efficient non-(or “less”) polluting engines of the future. I don’t think we’re going to jump from ICE straight to the perfect drive system in one leap. There is going to be a gradual evolution toward them and while alternative fuels aren’t perfect, they are an improvement on petroleum-based fuels.

    I’m really hoping that future is electric vehicles which we would charge from a clean electrical grid. We just need battery technology to improve more. It’s increasing in leaps and bounds and tons of R&D money being spent on it now should accelerate its development.

    I’m a nut about efficiency and that’s why things like this drive me nuts. We’ve been going for over 100 years using power trains that are positively inherently wasteful. There IS a better way.

  5. Gripen, the English side of the family were sugarbeet farmers (funny enough it was the Irish side who concentrated on building ships and missiles) and it was used for sweets etc. Of course they have got out of that now perhaps it would be a great time to get back in.

    I still think weight and engine efficiency need to be addressed along side biofuels.

    Can I say though I am a it worried about this site, you want a car that runs on hash and Swade wants a car that emits coke 😉

    Any fuel that increases beer costs is a BAD THING in my book!

  6. Gripen, the English side of the family were sugarbeet farmers (funny enough it was the Irish side who concentrated on building ships and missiles) and it was used for sweets etc. Of course they have got out of that now perhaps it would be a great time to get back in.

    I still think weight and engine efficiency need to be addressed along side biofuels.

    Can I say though I am a it worried about this site, you want a car that runs on hash and Swade wants a car that emits coke 😉

    Any fuel that increases beer costs is a BAD THING in my book!

  7. Well I agree with you- the ICE isn’t very efficient at all…indeed a very old technology. And I think in theory electric vehicles on a clean grid sounds good. In practice, however, it’s a tall order to serve up.

    No matter which route you choose to generate electricity, you have serious issues presented by the environmentalists and others at every turn. They loathe nuclear power- all that horrible radiation…

    Even though some coal (like from Wyoming and Western US) is much, much cleaner than most Eastern US coal, it’s still a pollutant. And it’s not renewable, either.

    Can’t dam up the rivers they say- too much of an impact on the fish (among other things).

    Solar power’s expensive and not all places are sunny all the time. How much land will you take up to lay out the solar panels? Not everybody has a southern facing roof, either…

    Wind power is rather cost-ineffective, more so than most realize. Even the windiest places can only run a wind turbine 30% of the time, and they cost a lot more to build per megawatt/hour than most other methods. Nobody seems to want one in their own backyard, and nobody is willing to pay more on their power bill either…always in someone else’s yard and on someone else’s dime.

    Only certain geothermal hotspots can be utilized for power without altering the environment around the site, so it’s potential contribution is limited.

    Carbon sequestering is totally impractical.

    And there you have it. In a nutshell, there’s no easy way to do it. Perhaps if we all live in mud huts we could get by, but it’s just not realistic.

    This is partly why I agree with you regarding alternative fuels…it gives us a chance to do SOMETHING at least, and a realistic something at that. This is one more reason why I appreciate Saab for encouraging alternative fuels- it’s no magic pill but it’s a start!

  8. I absolutely agree with both RJ and Gripen. Alternative fuels are the simplest step to take towards fully-renewable energy.
    In terms of science, all of the carbon emissions from the biofuel will be neutralized simply by the plants we’re growing to produce the fuels due to conservation of matter.
    Business-wise, it’s a low-cost, high-benefit situation. Is it the final step? Probably not, but it’s one that gives us more time to think about it.

  9. NG900, RJ and Grip:

    Good arguments. However, I differ in the application of alternative fuels for optimal use.

    You see, quite a bit of money, time and energy is consumed simply making the biofuels.

    Money: The plants, farms, transport and distribution cost money. Lots of it.

    Energy: Transporting feedstock, running the plants, distributing the product consumes energy.

    Time: Engineering time and people time in general are running toward a temporary placeholder in ethanol fuels.

    The better (and I do mean MUCH better) alternative is biodiesel. Production may be gleaned from existing facilities and may use a waste product. Distribution is close to everyone that eats (that’s everyone), and all that it requires is a diesel power plant.

    Better still is a plug-in hybrid biodiesel.

    The car would run solely on electric power half or more of the time, allowing tight controls on emissions at the point of power generation (which beats car emission controls hands down), use of waste as a fuel without any exotic technology, and emissions shifting away from our large cities. If you are lucky enough to have lots of hydro or nuke power, no emissions!!

    When the biodiesel runs, it’s still environmentally friendly!

    Plug-in hybrid biodiesel. That’s a real step forward. E85 is too unwieldy.

    PS: I would really rather have pure electric, but I’m not sure that battery technology will ever get us there.

  10. I’m too lazy to comment on some of the points you brought-up, eggs but I do want to point-out that the GM E-Flex car to be shown as a concept in Europe this year under a European GM marque is slated to be a plug-in EV with turbodiesel “range extender”. I’m sure one could run biodiesel in it.

    To address someone else’s earlier comment, I think that people’s (even environmentalists’) views have changed quite a bit in recent years in relation to nuclear power in the U.S. Sure, there are still hardcore opponents, but my personal view is that climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions is a more immediate threat to the entire planet than the localized potential radiation threat from a meltdown at a nuclear plant. Look at even a MAJOR disaster like Chernobyl. It spread a radiation cloud over much of Europe and likely caused many cancer deaths and birth defects, but compare that to the global deaths possible if the worst-case scenarios possible from climate change. In my mind it’s kind of like picking the lesser of two evils (nuclear power versus coal).

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