The Breakthrough We've Been Waiting For? - Autoline with John McElroy

There seems to be an anti-ethanol bias in so much of the media that GM's recent announcement didn't get the kind of coverage it deserves. Did you miss it, too? Here's the news: GM is teaming up with a company called Coskata that's come up with a breakthrough to make cellulosic ethanol.
But there's a big difference between their effort and everyone else's. Coskata's process goes way beyond using switch grass. It can use any kind of agricultural waste. Even more importantly, it can use a lot of municipal waste, i.e., most the stuff we're dumping into landfills. In fact, it can use anything that has carbon in it, including used tires.

Move over Brazil! We're about to get into the ethanol game in a big way.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers. Follow the jump to finish reading this week's editorial.

Just to make sure everything's on the up and up, the Argonne National Laboratory analyzed Coskata's process. It says that for every unit of energy used to make this ethanol, it will generate up to 7.7 times that amount of energy. On a well-to-wheel analysis, it reduces CO2 emissions by up to 84% compared with gasoline. Coskata's process also uses less than a gallon of water to make a gallon of ethanol compared to three gallons or more for other processes.

And here's the best news of all. GM and Coskata say they can produce a gallon of this ethanol for less than $1 a gallon. They'll have a pilot plant up and running by the end of the year, and the plan is to go into mass production by 2011.

Lest you think I've gone too ga-ga, I'll be the first to admit that ethanol is not the solution to our energy problem. But it sure can make a big dent. The Department of Energy figures that bio-fuels could meet up to 30% of our transportation needs by 2025. Thirty per cent is a lot!

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One of the key reasons oil prices are so high is that oil has no serious competition. OPEC and other oil producers can happily raise prices because the rest of us will gladly pay for it. Well maybe not gladly, but we do it because we have no choice. That's why demand for oil continues to grow despite the fact that prices have soared this decade. GM's chairman Rick Wagoner says the world is now using 1,000 barrels of oil every second. But if we can put some serious competition into the game, just watch: the speculators will start jumping out of the oil futures market like a house on fire.

Yes, there is that minor detail that ethanol delivers poorer fuel economy than gasoline. That's strictly because ethanol has less energy density than gas, fewer BTU's to be precise. But ethanol has much higher octane, about 105. Automakers can take advantage of that higher octane by boosting the compression ratio of an engine and gain back some of that fuel economy. Indeed, Saab claims its 9-5 BioPower car gets 15% better fuel economy running on E-85 at steady speeds.

Then there's the issue of not being able to easily find gas stations that sell E-85. It's a big problem and one that we need to focus on.

I know that none of what I've written here will placate the anti-ethanol crowd. They continue to ignore Brazil's amazing success with this fuel and will do everything possible to prevent us from doing the same.

But mark my words. If there is any kind of oil disruption, like if we start trading missiles with the Iranians in the Straits of Hormuz, there will be a stampede of Americans running to their local car dealers, banging on the doors, begging for flex-fuel vehicles that run on ethanol.


Autoline Detroit
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