Detroit 2008: GM and Coskata announce worldwide cellulosic ethanol partnership

General Motors vehicles and biomass materials are two things that you can find pretty much anywhere on the planet. GM and Coskata Energy announced a partnership today at the Detroit Auto Show that certainly hints at a future where you we will find biomass materials fueling GM vehicles in a lot of places, maybe pretty much anywhere.

If you've heard the Coskata name before, it's likely from the name of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge. The Coskata energy company, no relation, was started in July of 2006 with funding by ethanol-magnate Vinod Khosla's Khosla Ventures as well as Advanced Technology Ventures and Great Point Ventures. Why was all this big money interested in Coskata? Because Coskata claims they will soon reach one of the holy grails of the new energy movement: cheap cellulosic ethanol that can be created, well, pretty much anywhere in the world. The short version of this story: Coskata Ethanol can make ethanol from biomass, municipal solid waste and any other carbon-containing material and GM, which has taken an equity stake in Coskata, wants to promote the heck out of this ability.

More details than you can possibly devour in one sitting after the jump.

Aside from the variety of feedtsocks, Coskata is particularly proud that its ethanol production process uses less than a gallon of water to make a gallon of ethanol and returns 7.7 times the energy it takes to make the biofuel (this was verified by Argonne National Labs but note that all of this energy is not contained in the ethanol; some of it is in the electricity generated when parts of the biomass feedstock that don't become ethanol are burned). So, to make 100 gallons of ethanol, Coskata needs a ton of dry material and less than 100 gallons of water. Also, Coskata President and CEO Bill Roe said that will cost less than a dollar to produce a gallon of ethanol "almost anywhere in the world" using his company's process (yes, that's the production cost, and does not take government production credits into account).

Coskata uses "proprietary microorganisms" and patented bioreactor to produce ethanol. The microorganisms are fed a syngas and then they process the gas into ethanol. Coskata currently has five strains of these microorganisms (all from Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma University) that can make ethanol, butanol and other liquids. Coskata representatives told AutoblogGreen that they expect to increase the number of strains in the future, and will possibly be able to make other fuels from them. Roe also said that other automakers approached his company but that GM had the most long-term, most well-developed plan.

AutoblogGreen spoke with the Coskata (and GM) representatives on a cold morning in early January in Chicago at the Coskata headquarters. The day featured presentations from five individuals, beginning with Roe. The others were (in order) Mary Beth Stanek, director of GM's environment & energy policy and commercialization, Coleman Jones, GM's biofuel implementation manager, Candace Wheeler, GM technical fellow in GM research & development and planning and Richard Tobey, VP of engineering and R&D at Coskata. You can listen to recordings of all of these presentations. I'll note the highlights here.

Stanek said that GM wants to get non-food sources of ethanol into commercialization as soon as possible and that GM has come up with a practical estimate of U.S. ethanol for light-duty fuels in 2010 (which is so not far away), and decided that 61 percent will still be gasoline, four percent will be grain ethanol and 35 percent (!!) could be cellulosic ethanol. Even though GM is bringing out a lot of non-biofuel-specific technologies on eco-cars (hybrids, electric drive, lightweight materials, etc.), Stanek said biofuels remain a focus for the company.

Jones described how the Coskata process takes a biomaterial and first converts it into syngas before feeding it to the microorganisms. Considering that the recently-passed energy bill requires 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2025, which is well over 20 percent of the U.S. fuel supply, having a non-corn-based way to produce that ethanol is important. He expects there to be 18 million flex-fuel vehicles in the U.S. in five years. Jones also made the point that you get more miles per BTU using ethanol (but fewer miles per gallon, because there are fewer BTUs in a gallon of ethanol than in a gallon of gasoline).

Wheeler said that there were about seven billion gallons of ethanol produced in the U.S. in 2007, most of them from corn. GM began talks with Coskata in the spring of 2007 and the automaker likes the variety of inputs that the Coskata process can use. I mean, considering Coskata can make ethanol from some of the residual materials in vehicle recycling (plastics, rubber), partnering up is sensible. Wheeler said that GM will help promote Coskata ethanol and get it into the marketplace. The DOE gave out $385m worth of biorefinery projects grants in February 2007 and GM is helping Coskata apply for some of the $200m that will be given out in the next round, coming in February 2008.

Finally, Tobey said that the microorganisms in the bioreactor effectively ingest the syngas and extrude ethanol. Water used in the process (necessary because the microorganisms are are anaerobic and quickly die in the presence of oxygen) is recycled for a while but, because all living organisms create waste products, the water cannot be reused indefinitely and so is recycled on a continuous basis. As stated, the end result is an overall water use of less than one gallon of water per gallon of ethanol produced. The microorganisms are not genetically modified (although future strains might be), but have been adapted to be more tolerant to harmful chemicals. They little critters are also not harmful to people or animals.

So far, Coskata's operations are small, but expansion is coming soon. The company will have a small pilot scale plant running in Warrenville, IL by the end of January 2008 and a 40,000 commercial demonstration plant in operation by the end of 2008 (details on this plant were not given out, but Tobey said announcements will follow in the coming months). The first Coskata 100-million-gallon-per-year plant should be operational by late 2010-early 2011. A number of firms are bidding on that, but no details were given out.

In the short Q&A that followed the presentations, Stanek said that GM is taking an equity stake in Coskata, but how much is not public information. GM will take the ethanol from the demonstration plant and use it at GM's Milford Proving Ground. Most importantly, GM will be attempting to take this technology around the world. The main goal for both the firms is to quickly commercialize this process.

Not enough detail for ya? Well, stay tuned for the next AutoblogGreen podcast, which features an interview with Roe where he admits that using the Coskata process to turn coal into ethanol is a very likely possibility down the road (but probably not in America). Also, here are the recordings of the full presentations from GM and Coskata representatives.
  • Coskata CEO Bill Roe (20 min, 13MB),
  • GM's Mary Beth Stanek (15 min, 10MB)
  • Coleman Jones (12:30 min, 8.6MB)
  • Candace Wheeler (20 min, 13MB)
  • Coskata's Richard Tobey (21 min, 14MB)
  • Brief Q & A following the presentations (2 min, 1.5MB)
Alternately, you can listen to all the presentations in this one 90 minute file (61MB). If you don't have 90 minutes to listen to all the presentations, here's a 90 second clip from Coleman Jones on what you need to do to a car to make it E85 capable. One annoying thing about the Minidisc recorder that I use is that it somehow manages to pick up cell phone signals as little beeps. In a room full of journalists and executives, you can guess that there are a lot of these floating in the air, and so these recordings contains some annoying beeps. You can still understand what's being said, but I thought it was fair to warn you. As you're listening to the audio clips, you can follow along with the slide presentations in the gallery below.

Lastly, we have gathered the press releases marking the announcement below. I told you it was more than you can handle in one go.

GM, Coskata Partner in Breakthrough Ethanol Technology
Process Makes Ethanol from Renewables Including Trash and Old Tires

DETROIT, Jan. 13 – General Motors announced a partnership Sunday with Coskata Inc. to use the company's breakthrough technology that affordably and efficiently makes ethanol from practically any renewable source, including garbage, old tires and plant waste.

Coskata, which was formally introduced as part of GM's opening press conference at the North American International Auto Show, uses a proprietary process that leverages patented microorganisms and bioreactor designs to produce ethanol for less than $1 a gallon, about half of today's cost of producing gasoline.

"We are very excited about what this breakthrough will mean to the viability of biofuels and, more importantly, to our ability to reduce dependence on petroleum," GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said.

Coskata's process addresses the issues most often raised about grain-based ethanol production.

According to Argonne National Laboratory, which analyzed Coskata's process, for every unit of energy used, it generates up to 7.7 times that amount of energy, and it reduces CO2 emissions by up to 84 percent compared with a well-to-wheel analysis of gasoline.

Coskata's process uses less than a gallon of water to make a gallon of ethanol compared with three gallons or more for other processes.

Coskata, based in Warrenville, Ill., can use its technology practically anywhere in the world that a carbon-based feedstock is available.

For GM, this could lead to joint efforts in markets such as China, where growing energy demand and a new energy research center could jumpstart a significant effort into ethanol made from biomass, Wagoner said.

More immediately, GM will receive the first ethanol from Coskata's pilot plant in the fourth quarter of 2008. The fuel will be used in testing vehicles at GM's Milford Proving Grounds.

GM is the auto industry leader in offering consumers a choice of flex-fuel cars and trucks that run on either ordinary gasoline or E85 – a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent, or any combination of the two. GM produces more than 1 million is flex-fuel vehicles a year and has 3.5 million on the road globally.

In the U.S., GM has more than 2.5 million FlexFuel models on the road and is committed to making half its production flex-fuel capable by 2012. GM sells 11 E85-capable models this year and will increase that to more than 15 models for the 2009 model year.

GM has worked in partnerships with businesses, university and non-governmental organizations over the last two years to grow the U.S. infrastructure for E85, helping to open 300 fueling stations in 15 states. Helping make the fuel more readily available was the next logical step.

The timing of the GM-Coskata partnership coincides with President Bush's signing last month of the Energy Independence and Security Act, which calls for a dramatic increase in biofuels – from 7.5 billion gallons in 2012 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. Corn- and other grain-based ethanol are expected to account for up to 15 billion gallons of that new standard with 21 billion gallons coming from cellulosic and biomass sources.

One of the criticisms of cellulosic ethanol is that its development is several years away. Coskata CEO and President Bill Roe says the next generation ethanol is here today.

"We will have our first commercial-scale plant making 50 to 100 million gallons of ethanol running in 2011, and that includes the two years it will take to build the plant," Roe said. "Success in delivering on our business plan means that we could account for a significant portion of the biomass ethanol mandated in the new Renewable Fuels Standard within 10 years."

The partnership includes an undisclosed equity stake for GM, joint research and development into emissions technology and investigation into making ethanol from GM facilities' waste and non-recyclable vehicle parts.

The Coskata partnership builds on a quarter century of GM research into biofuels and is part of GM's five-fold approach to providing energy alternatives for automobiles. These include continued efforts in making fuel-efficient engines; E85 ethanol; hybrids; electrically driven vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells.

"There is no question in my mind that making ethanol more widely available is absolutely the most effective and environmentally sound solution," Wagoner said. "And it's one that can be acted on immediately."

About GM
General Motors Corp. (NYSE: GM), the world's largest automaker, has been the annual global industry sales leader for 76 years. Founded in 1908, GM today employs about 280,000 people around the world. With global headquarters in Detroit, GM manufactures its cars and trucks in 33 countries. In 2006, nearly 9.1 million GM cars and trucks were sold globally under the following brands: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, GM Daewoo, Holden, HUMMER, Opel, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn and Vauxhall. GM's OnStar subsidiary is the industry leader in vehicle safety, security and information services. More information on GM can be found at

About Coskata
Coskata is a biology-based renewable energy company for economies dependent on foreign sources of oil. Using proprietary microorganisms and transformative bioreactor designs, the company will produce ethanol for under US $1.00 per gallon almost anywhere in the world, from a wide variety of feedstocks. Founded in 2006 by leading renewable energy investors and entrepreneurs, including Khosla Ventures, GreatPoint Ventures and Advanced Technology Ventures, Coskata has compiled a strong IP portfolio of patents, trade secrets and know-how and assembled a first-class team for the development and commercialization of its compelling syngas-to-ethanol process technology. For more information, please visit

Company Background

Chronology of Coskata
  • June 2006: Dr. Rathin Datta and Todd Kimmel work to obtain exclusive rights to the organisms at Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma University with Dr. Ralph Tanner, Dr. Randy Lewis, and Dr. Ray Huhnke
  • July 2006: Coskata, Inc. founded with Series A funding from Khosla Ventures, Advanced Technology Ventures, Great Point Ventures
  • February 2007: Executive team expanded to include Wes Bolsen and Richard Tobey. The technical and business teams are built out
  • May 2007: New global headquarters in Warrenville, IL acquired to establish premiere anaerobic microbiology R&D center and small scale pilot operation
  • August 2007: Rights to 16+ patents on the Coskata process either issued or under consideration
  • September 2007: President and CEO, Bill Roe, brought in
  • December 2007: Coskata sees 50x improvement in the performance of the core ethanol producing micro-organisms from their date of acquisition. Allows commercial scale next generation ethanol to be made economically viable
  • January 2008: General Motors unveils Coskata and a strategic partnership at the 2008 International Auto Show, taking ownership stake in Coskata, Inc.
Coskata was founded in 2006 by Todd Kimmel and Rathin Datta, with support from GreatPoint Ventures, Khosla Ventures and Advanced Technology Ventures (ATV). Kimmel was an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at ATV where he was actively looking for new commercialization opportunities in the cleantech and renewable energy sectors.
In researching opportunities, the team learned of work taking place at the University of Oklahoma under Dr. Ralph Tanner and entered into an exclusive agreement to license microorganisms that could be used to create ethanol through a biofermentation process. The concept of synthesis gas passing over a catalyst bed to create natural gas was the starting point for the broader concept of turning synthesis gas into valuable products like liquid fuels, which would become the foundation of Coskata.

Key Advantages of Coskata's Next Generation Ethanol:
  • Efficient: Together, Coskata's proprietary microorganisms and bioreactor designs lead to the highest conversion rates of feedstock to ethanol in the industry – over 100 gallons per dry ton while utilizing less than one gallon of fresh water per gallon of ethanol.
  • Affordable: Using Coskata's process, ethanol can be manufactured at a variable cost of under US $1.00 per gallon - the lowest cost of manufacture in the industry.
  • Flexible: Coskata's unique three-step production process makes use of the industry's widest variety of available feedstock – biomass, municipal and agricultural wastes, forest residuals, bagasse, and other carbonaceous sources – enabling local production of next-generation ethanol.
Building Coskata
Kimmel and his team saw the potential for paradigm shifting technology in the production of ethanol. In July of 2006, after detailed discussions with Samir Kaul and Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures and Bill Wiberg of ATV, Coskata was born. Over the course of the following twelve months, the management team worked together to build a top-tier biofermentation technology team, establish the technology vision for the overall Coskata process technology, begin important experimentation work and research, and establish critical relationships that would serve Coskata over that period of time and in the future.
Coskata has established a new 25,000 sq. ft. research and development facility located in Warrenville, Ill and continues to add key hires to its executive ranks. The company has established a roster of impressive leaders as key partners, including General Motors, Brigham Young University, Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma and Argonne National Laboratory.


DETROIT – General Motors' commitment to reinvent the automobile includes a range of clean transportation technologies that respect the environment. Biofuels, including ethanol, are a key way to reduce petroleum use and greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions, and GM is the global industry leader in producing vehicles that operate on ethanol fuel blends.

GM's partnership with Coskata to commercialize its unique process for turning biomass into ethanol is just the most recent evidence of GM's commitment to make ethanol more available by promoting ethanol production technology and infrastructure. GM intends to announce several more strategic biomass arrangements in the coming months, and is watching technology developments in grain-based biofuels.

The Coskata partnership also builds on GM's longstanding leadership in automotive fuels development and testing that includes research and development of unleaded fuels in conjunction with the development of the catalytic converter and early formulations of ethanol.

"For 30 years, GM has been at the forefront of developing and promoting ethanol and ethanol-capable vehicles to reduce petroleum consumption and emissions," said Beth Lowery, GM vice president, Environment, Energy and Safety Policy. "We believe ethanol used as a fuel, not just as a gasoline additive, is the best near-term alternative to the surging global demand for oil because ethanol is renewable and it significantly reduces CO2 emissions compared to gasoline. Best of all, it is available today."

After working alongside ethanol producers to develop fuel formulations to provide optimum performance in vehicle engines, GM began promoting ethanol more than two decades ago and was the first manufacturer to enable its entire U.S. fleet to operate on E10, a blend of 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol.

Globally, GM has about 3.5 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Brazil. About 2.5 million are capable of operating on any percentage of gasoline and ethanol, up to 85 percent ethanol (E85). Another 1 million are in Brazil, where more than 90 percent of vehicles GM sells run on 100-percent ethanol, known as E100. GM produces more than 1 million flex-fuel vehicles a year globally.

GM has committed to doubling North American flex-fuel vehicle production from 400,000 to 800,000 by 2010 and to make half of its vehicles flex-fuel-capable by 2012. In the 2007 model year, GM produced 14 FlexFuel models totaling 760,000 vehicles.

In addition to the Coskata partnership, GM is working with universities, businesses and non-governmental organizations to promote the benefits of E85 at a grassroots level. GM has played a significant role in raising E85 awareness in 15 states and has helped open 300 E85 refueling stations in the last two years.

The U.S. is the largest market using fuels blended with ethanol; however, its use as a fuel source is gaining global popularity as a more environmentally responsible option to petroleum-based fuels. GM has developed market-specific engines and vehicles that allow consumers to benefit from the use of earth-friendly ethanol fuels produced and available in their country.

Brazil is the best example of the market potential for alternative fuels. Since 1975, Brazil has been using ethanol made from sugar cane to create self sufficiency in motor vehicle fuels. GM has been a leader in flexible-fuel powertrains in the Brazilian market. These are vehicles capable of operating on any blend of gasoline and ethanol, up to 100 percent ethanol.

The Saab 9-5 BioPower is another example of GM applying its ethanol learnings globally.

During the development of BioPower, Swedish engineers teamed with their GM colleagues in Brazil to transfer knowledge of flex fuels. As a result, Saab leads the European premium car segment in offering the 9-5 BioPower model, which accounts for 70 percent of all 9-5 sales.

The GM/Coskata partnership – What will they accomplish together?

The GM/Coskata partnership brings together the world's top automaker and a leader in producing vehicles capable of running on biofuels - with innovators in the biofuels industry.
  • GM has over 25 years of experience designing and producing bio-fuel capable vehicles.
  • The Coskata team consists of 35 experts in the field of biofuels with 27 PhDs and 16 patents in process.
  • Some of the best microbiologists are employed by Coskata.
Shared Science
  • Through their partnership, GM and Coskata will share the science and work to accelerate biomass ethanol commercialization.
  • GM and Coskata will work together in several areas such as waste and emissions management, global applications and fuel testing.
  • Bill Roe, President and CEO, Coskata: "GM is enabling Coskata to produce the next generation of biofuels - without using a food source - making it economically viable and commercially available."
Rapid Commercialization & Retail Development
  • The partnership will help rapidly commercialize the Coskata process and lead to infrastructure growth for E85 flex-fuel vehicles.
  • Over the last 18 months, GM has led the effort to grow E85 stations around the county. The effort has led to more than 300 ethanol pumps in 15 states.
  • Greater availability of biofuels will help encourage more stations to sell E85 and make this alternative fuel a viable choice for the drivers of more than 2.5 million GM FlexFuel vehicles and the more than 6 million total FFVs on the road today.
  • Coskata is one of several companies that will change the ethanol industry by building plants of its own and licensing its technology to other companies. Coskata expects to produce 50-100 million gallons of ethanol in its first plant by 2011.
Government Grants
  • A major catalyst in improving the growth of infrastructure is continued government assistance for retail station conversion and funding into biomass technologies.
  • The new Energy and Security Act mandating the production and use of 36 billion gallons of ethanol fuel annually by 2022 is complemented by partnerships like GM and Coskata that match an established industry leader with an emerging company that has a breakthrough technology.
Other Benefits
  • Using Coskata's process, GM can provide non-recyclable plant waste as a feedstock for ethanol, further reducing landfill use and contributing to GM's effort to increase the number of its global production facilities that send zero waste to landfills.
  • Even non-recyclable parts of vehicles that have run their lifespan can serve as a feedstock using the Coskata process.
  • Mary Beth Stanek, GM director of Environment and Energy Policy and Commercialization: "GM's investment in Coskata's process of developing biofuels is an important step towards enhancing U.S. energy security, while at the same time, tackling some of our most important environmental challenges in a meaningful way."

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