• Feb 19th 2009 at 1:57PM
  • 23
Click above for high-res gallery of the ethanol Hummer

There is a lot of controversy surrounding biofuels. Various studies have shown that crop-based biofuels contribute to global warming more than they help prevent it, that ethanol is no better than gasoline, and that South East Asian rainforests are suffering for biofuels, to name just three. The most dramatic recent claim was that ethanol was the worst type of renewable energy.

Currently, popular fuel crops include sugar cane (in Brazil), sugar beets (Europe), and corn (United States). The good news is that you don't need to grow crops for the express purpose of making them into ethanol to create the biofuel. You can also use beer byproducts or get help from sea grubs, among many other methods. When you use these non-crop alternative methods, the result is often called cellulosic ethanol. Since ethanol has all sorts of negative connotations, some suggest we rename the fuel. "Celluline" is one possibility, but for this post we'll stick with cellulosic ethanol.

Cellulosic ethanol is the main face of so-called second-generation biofuels. It's called "cellulosic" because it is made from lignocellulose. Lignocellulose, in turn, is made up of lignin and cellulose that is present in the cell walls of woody plants. Follow us past the jump for an expanded primer on cellulosic ethanol and it's place in green motoring today.

In short, then, cellulosic ethanol is a biofuel that is made from non-edible parts of plants as well as things like wood and other biomass sources. Of the major automakers, GM is far our in front in supporting ethanol as an gasoline alternative. In 2008, the General invested in two cellulosic ethanol start-up companies, Coskata and Mascoma. Toyota also recently signed up to work with a group of Japanese companies to produce low-cost cellulosic ethanol by the middle of the next decade. Coskata's process, for example, uses propriety microorganisms living in a bioreactor to make ethanol from pretty much any biomass soruce. You can get a feel for how Coskata plans to enter the marketplace by reading through their January 2008 slide presentation in the gallery below.

At the Platts Cellulosic Ethanol Conference in Chicago last fall, a representative from the Department Of Energy discussed the DOE's Biomass Program. The program's short term goal is to have cost-competitive cellulosic ethanol (i.e., fuel that costs at most $1.33 to make per gallon by 2012). The DOE is conducting bioenergy crop trials using switchgrass, sorghum, and more (see this map).

Once we figure out how to make cellulosic ethanol cheap enough to sell at a profit, what then? The good news is that cellulosic ethanol and corn-based ethanol perform exactly the same once they are made, so the way we use ethanol now won't change once it's all made from biosludge. Right now, in the U.S., a lot of gasoline available at the pump is actually a blend of gasoline and up to 10 percent ethanol. This is called E10 fuel. Some pumps, often marked with a yellow handle, dispense E85 (15 percent gasoline with 85 percent ethanol), but those pumps dispense less than one percent of the ethanol used in the U.S. In fact, once annual ethanol production in the U.S. reaches 14 billion gallons, which will likely happen in a few years, the E10 market will be saturated. To give the excess ethanol a place to go, the DOE is testing whether intermediate ethanol blends - E15 and E20 - should be more widely used.

It is not that difficult or expensive to turn a standard gasoline engine into one that is E85-capable, but you do need to make some upgrades. The fuel pump, level sender, the on-board diagnostics sensor, fuel injectors and seals all need to be changed. The pressure in the fuel tank also needs to be monitored and the software needs to be recalibrated so that the system knows what blend of ethanol and gasoline is coursing through the fuel line without the user telling the car what she just filled up with. The U.S. government says that about 300,000 E85-capable vehicles were in use in America in 2006, the last year for which data is available. This number is much lower than one we've seen from the Auto Alliance, which claims there are "about 5 million vehicles on the road today that have been built to use up to 85 percent ethanol + 15 percent gasoline (known as E-85)." The difference is that the government only counts vehicles it believes are being fueled with E85. Considering all of the trouble associated with corn ethanol in the U.S., cracking the cheap cellulosic ethanol nut will go a long way towards making E85 a truly green fuel.

To keep up to date on the ethanol industry, keep checking our ethanol category using this link.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 8 Months Ago
      While ethanol reduces emissions in certain categories, it doesn't do a sufficient job of reducing CO2. At best it reduces CO2 emissions by up to 30%.

      We are so far above the limit of background CO2 concentrations that using a fuel that does a half-assed job of reducing what's going to destabilize the global climate is pointless. One may argue that it's a start. Sure...it may be if we don't lose focus and stay on the ball to progress to the next step while using things like ethanol. But how often does that happen when money, big corporations, and lobbyists are involved?

        • 8 Months Ago
        Also it has been shown that the crops used to porduce ethanol can sequester back into the ground in the form of sugars 13 times the amount of CO2 produced by processing and burning the ethanol in your car.
        • 8 Months Ago
        Not all CO2 emisions are the same, noz.

        There's a huge difference with using carbon that's already in our biosphere and part of the active carbon cycle in and out of the atmosphere already as happens with ethanol's CO2 emissions....


        Drilling far underground to get petroleum that has been sequestered away from the biosphere effectively forever in human terms, and then refining and burning that CO2 into the atmosphere. That's new (for us), extra, added-on CO2 we're throwing into the air that would NOT otherwise have been there if we'd left that petroleum where it sat.

        So ethanol emitting less CO2 isn't the key issue. It's whether it's carbon neutral that's key. And burning ethanol is carbon neutral.
      • 8 Months Ago

      Carney, with ethanol, you only utilize 40% of the biomass content to make fuel. With methanol you can use 60% of the biomass content to make fuel-- plus you get to sell the corn! Additionally, methanol can easily be converted into gasoline with only a 10% increase in the cost.

      I agree with you that agricultural land could be increased but you could also increase the production of fuel on farmland by at least 50% if you used the bio-waste from agricultural crops to make methanol instead of ethanol.

      And since the biomass conversion process waste 80% of its carbon content, if you added hydrogen to the process from nuclear or renewable fuels, you could increase the biomass productivity of methanol by up to 400%.

      So in theory (with hydrogen), a corn producing farm could be producing more than seven times as much biofuel from its agricultural bio-waste than a farm that's producing corn solely for ethanol.

      Additionally, forest waste and urban garbage and sewage could also increase the production of methanol for fuel or for conversion into gasoline.

      Let me recommend Nobel prize winning chemist, George Olah's book: Beyond Oil and Gas: The methanol economy for more details on the methanol vs. ethanol issue.

      • 8 Months Ago
      And still, we don't have any real idea of what ethanol from cellulose will cost.

      Cellulose is much more difficult to convert to fermentable sugars than is corn starch.

      Right now no company will tell you what it costs them, just that they hope to make it for $X/gallon sometime in the future.

      Even with double the subsidies I doubt cellulosic ethanol will ever be competitive with ethanol from corn.

      The best approach would be to drop all subsidies to producers and farmers and buy ethanol (from sugarcane) on the open market.
      • 8 Months Ago
      why hasn't the public been told of the problems running lawnmowers,chainsaws,ect.with ethanol fuels?
      • 8 Months Ago
      This appears to be an ad rather than full knowledge of the e-fuel mess. How about engines w/carberators,boats with gas engines that sit in the Winter,garden equipment & grass mowers. ?? How about seniors cars that may not be driven in Winter -infrequently-at best. WHY should we pay for engine mods to accomodate E-fuel so gas companies can increase profits. Totally self serving not in the public interest.
      • 8 Months Ago
      Cellulosic ethanol is very promising. If we can get it right it could help us deal with our overflowing landfills.

      • 8 Months Ago
      As I've said before, cellulosic ethanol is a nice to have, since ethanol has a higher energy content (and thus miles per gallon) than methanol, which as noted above can be made from ANY biomass without exception.

      However, while cellulosic research should continue, we need to overcome the risk of the necessity of years more of cellulosic research making alcohol fuel seem like a "maybe someday down the road" issue rather than a technology that is ready to go NOW and has been ever since the flex fuel vehicle was invented in 1986.

      We should mandate that all new cars sold be fully flex fueled, able to run equally easily on gasoline, methanol, or ethanol. Starting the next model year. It's only a $100 per car expense for automakers, but it can change the world.
      • 8 Months Ago
      why hasen't the public been told about the problem with running chainsaws & lawnmowers with ethanol fuels? bill
      • 8 Months Ago
      There's no logical reason to use food crops to make ethanol when you could just raise the crops for food and use the residual bio-waste (60% of the total biomass content) to make methanol. Methanol can be used as a light vehicle automotive fuel or converted into dimethyl ether, a cleaner substitute for diesel fuel. Methanol can also be converted directly into gasoline using the Mobil Oil MTG process which was used successfully in New Zealand back in the 1980s to produce 600,000 tonnes of gasoline annually from methanol.

      Methanol can also be produced from urban biowaste (garbage and sewage). But US farmers producing ethanol for energy crops could actually be selling their crops for food or feed while simultaneously producing 50% more energy fuels from their crops by producing methanol from the agricultural bio-waste.

      Marcel F. Williams
        • 8 Months Ago
        Food and fuel do NOT compete.

        Throughout the huge increases in ethanol corn production in the last few years, food corn production has gone up as well, as have other staple crops.

        Moreover only the starch in ethanol corn is taken out while the protein, vitamins, etc., are retained and used for animal feed for meat livestock. This animal feed would need to be grown anyway, so why not use the starch for ethanol fuel?

        Also the quantity of farmland is not fixed; crop yields are up 17% since 2002 alone, and enormous proportions of farmland are unused, both here and abroad.
        • 8 Months Ago
        Wasn't the toxicity of the methanol who restrained its use? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanol_fuel

        Btw, there was also another fuel to use like butanol http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanol_fuel
      • 8 Months Ago
      Is it true that Ethanol lowers your gas millage quit a bit, so isn't this like taking a step backwards for two steps forward?
        Mr. Sunshine
        • 8 Months Ago
        Yea, but it also has a higher octane number, which is a positive for new fuel technology like high compression ratios, turbo charging, etc.
      • 8 Months Ago
      Farm based biomass for ethanol production is fine, but can lead to long term degradation of soil nutrients and more use of costly man-made fertilizers. There are companies working on converting the biomass in household garbage into ethanol. This solves two problems. First, it greatly reduces the amount of waste going into landfills and potentially contaminating the environment. Secondly, it creates the ethanol which can then be used to fuel our vehicles. Just think of all the garbage produced along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. New York State could be the Saudi Arabia of the next century.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I own 400 acres of Iowa farmland. Not far from me a government supported cellulose plant is being constructed (meanwhile - 7 corn based Ethanol plants went to auction a couple of weeks ago and two other near-by planned plants have been CNX).

      One of the main detractors of a cellulose based plant is the sheer volume of "stuff" required to produce the end product. The residual raw material left over from corn production is called Stover. Currently Stover is plowed back into the ground and provides needed nutrients to the soil. An even greater benefit is the biomatter itself Stover supplies, a key element of soil loam. Without loam, soil gets to be hard a a rock and is very difficult to work for planting preparation.

      If corn (or any farming by product) is used to create Ethanol, then that raw material is not available for the ground and the loss must be made up with fertilizer. Fertilizer costs rise and fall with the price of oil and is currently at an all time high. There is no free lunch. Fertilizer and chemicals are about the same cost as the seed corn itself (currently slightly less than $300/40 lb bag - 80,000 kernels, enough for about 2.5 acres). Seed corn is expected to cost near $500/bag in the next year or two.

      Although the return for cellulose Ethanol is high, when shipping of stover (rail/truck), storage (a corn based Ethanol plant used about 35-40,000 bushels/day and in volume, cellulose dwarfs that amount), additional fertilizer, and fuel to apply that fertilizer are all factored in, the return for stover (or any farm based crop materials) is greatly reduced.

      There are lots of other cellulose based products available, and currently the verdict is out as to whether or not farm based crop materials is best used in the production of Ethanol. The market has spoken about corn based Ethanol and it doesn't like it much. The market will decide for farm crop based materials too.

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