January 25, 2007 10:29 AM PST

Fuels industry seeks its 'ethanol 2.0'

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Fuels industry seeks its 'ethanol 2.0' Although he didn't use the word "cellulosic" in his State of the Union address, President George Bush's call for increased renewable fuels on Wednesday turned the spotlight on an emerging form of ethanol technology.

Today, ethanol produced in the United States--primarily used as an additive to gasoline--is produced mainly from corn. To achieve the president's goal of producing 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels a year by 2017, experts say production of so-called cellulosic ethanol--made from woody substances, such as straw or wood chips--would need to be brought on line at a large scale.

"If you are going to get the 35 billion gallons or any other number, you've got to do it with lower-cost raw materials and a higher energy yield," said Dan Pullman, vice president of investment bank McNamee Lawrence, which advises alternative energy companies. "There has got to be something better than corn, and that's recognized even by players in the corn ethanol space."

Many venture capitalists converging around the clean-technology area, are placing their money on cellulosic ethanol, sometimes referred to as second-generation ethanol. High-profile investor Vinod Khosla has invested in several ethanol companies focused on using alternative sources for ethanol, including Celunol, Mascoma and Cilion.

Yet even with the influx of investment in alternatives to corn-based ethanol and stepped-up political commitments to biofuels, many experts warn against expecting too much too soon from second-generation ethanol.

Industrial-scale production of ethanol from cellulosic feedstock has not yet been done and would require years of development, say experts. And alternative forms of ethanol face many of the same barriers to adoption that existing forms of ethanol do. Notably, very few ethanol or ethanol-ready pumps currently exist in the U.S. In addition, biofuels raise environmental concerns over land use and pollution.

"Cellulosic technologies aren't a panacea," said Nathaniel Greene, senior policy analyst at the National Resources Defense Council biofuels panel discussion, held at MIT. "We have to make a choice. We have to decide how much of the stuff we want and how much benefit we want to get."

Greene said that there's a "gold rush mentality" around new forms of ethanol among investors. He argued that technical innovation needs to be buttressed with policies encouraging energy efficiency and that policies should figure in the total environmental impact of new technologies.

Feedstocks and microbes
The Renewable Fuels Association--the main ethanol lobbying group in the United States--lauded Bush's stepped-up energy target, which is meant to reduce U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next decade.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 includes a program that set a goal of producing 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2012. The president's new target would bump that figure up to 35 billion gallons by 2017.

Betting on biofuels
Capital investments in ethanol, biodiesel and other biofuels
2005 $110 million
2006 $740 million
Source: Cleantech Venture Network

The RFA said that U.S. ethanol production last year reached a record 4.9 billion gallons and that expanded production, now being constructed, will push that number up to 6 billion gallons of capacity by the middle of 2009.

The new goal "will stimulate new investment in cellulosic ethanol technologies and drive market opportunities for ethanol beyond existing blend levels," said RFA President Bob Dinneen in a statement.

Companies investing in cellulosic technology are pursuing various chemical processes and different "feedstocks" to produce ethanol, from corn stalks to straw.

There are a handful of production facilities being built now with cellulosic ethanol technology--Mascoma recently picked New York state for its first production site. With supporting policies, this form of ethanol could start to make a dent on the commercial market in three years, said John Howe, vice president of public affairs at Celunol, which has developed technology from making ethanol from the residual material of sugar cane harvesting.

"As is the case with many new energy technologies, we're talking about large-scale infrastructure, and it becomes an issue of financial risk in large commercial projects," Howe said. "The concept is well proven; it has been scaled to pilot projects and is moving to demonstrations."

"(Cellulosic) used to be five or six years out, but we could get it done in three years. The key is being able to build a plant that can do one to two million gallons," said William Baum, executive vice president of Diversa, which finds microbes in exotic locales and puts them to work turning raw materials into ethanol.

One advantage that cellulosic ethanol promises over corn-based ethanol is linked to greenhouse gases. Production of corn-based ethanol emits roughly the same amount of greenhouse gases as gasoline when figuring in factors such as fertilizers and the amount of fuel required to drive, according to a recent MIT review of the " ethanol debate." The study found that cellulosic ethanol production could generate significantly less pollutants than corn-based processes.

Ethanol in the spotlight

One of the most bullish people on cellulosic ethanol is investor Khosla, who foresees rapid development with the right financial backing. In an opinion piece published a day before the State of the Union, Khosla said, "My research has convinced me that the possibility of $1.25 per gallon or cheaper cellulosic fuels (is) less than three years away (though the question of putting plants in place and getting Wall Street to finance debt for such facilities still looms large)."

Energy portfolio
For economies structured around petroleum-based fuels, any switch to biofuels faces several challenges in order to be done sustainably, say experts.

Currently there are only about 1,100 ethanol pumps in the United States, and they are mainly clustered in the corn-producing states of the Midwest. For ethanol to be more than an additive to gasoline, more vehicles that can run on ethanol (as well as gasoline) need to be produced.

Other issues to weigh regarding biofuels are environmental, such as land degradation and water use, and whether ethanol production will drive up food prices by competing for land resources. Celunol's Howe noted that large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol would require hundreds of millions of acres of land and substantial demands on water.

And although plant-based fuels are considered renewable, some environmentalists argue that research dollars and promises attached to ethanol are misplaced because they distract from practices and technologies that reduce energy consumption.

Pullman suggested that the future of ethanol may vary depending on where it is produced. Regions rich in forests could create ethanol from cellulosic sources, while corn-growing areas focus on grain-based ethanol.

To convert more cars from petroleum-based gasoline, companies in the transportation industry should also pursue biodiesel and high-performance car batteries, Pullman added. Even with technical advancements, lasting changes in transportation fuels hinge on global politics, policies, and the existing industry infrastructures.

"The challenge with this clean-tech space is that it's a lot more like life sciences," he said. "You don't know for five or eight years that you got something that works at the cost and performance that you originally envisioned."

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

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22 comments

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Ethanol
Many more drivers would use ethanol were it not for EPA restrictions on modifications of older cars. They consider a carbeurator modification and engine modification and mechanics are not allowed to do them. We senior citizens and many low income people will never be able to afford the price of a new auto of any kind, especially Flex Fuel Vehicles or Hybrids.
Posted by gbalpha33 (28 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hmmmm......
... "We senior citizens and many low income people will never be able to afford the price of a new auto of any kind, especially Flex Fuel Vehicles or Hybrids..." Have you ever consider moving south of the border as some have already done and living there comfortably too!
Posted by Commander_Spock (3123 comments )
Link Flag
How About Ethanol From Sugar Cane!
"Today, ethanol produced in the United States--primarily used as an additive to gasoline--is produced mainly from corn....", So, how about producing ethanol from the by-products of sugar cane like the Brazilians in South America have been doing successfully for years now. Why not learn from the Brazilians!
Posted by Commander_Spock (3123 comments )
Reply Link Flag
In case you haven't noticed...
...there's just not a lot of sugar cane growing happening in the continental USA...and what there is will not sustain the necessary production capacity. The process that uses corn stalks and grasses is the best hope, because just about any plant matter can be used then. If we had the amount of sugar cane capacity that the Brazilians have, which is basically equivalent to our corn capacity (if not higher considering the # of uses we have for corn for ethanol, animal feed, and other products compared to sugar cane).
Posted by 527nrhpd (44 comments )
Link Flag
Re: Ethanol 2.0 - The solution: Fuel Efficiency
The idea of running our society on any one fuel in the future is one I could see Big Oil being behind.

Brazil currently runs their whole country on alternative fuel. Guess who hates Brazil most? Big Oil.

We could solve much of our fuel problem now, if we wanted to.

How? The solution rests in fuel efficiency - making our current gas go further than the 16mpg an SUV gets now, and making a variety of clean fuels available to all.

The technology is already there. But those with the money don't want to see a more efficient car on the road. You'd buy less gas. Record Oil profits lately prove this point.

If the Oil industry could trade gasoline for something else liquid they can sell, they might come on board with the idea. Hence: Ethanol 2.0.

Hydrogen, Solar, and Electric, well, one cannot bottle and sell those as easily, or for as much. (see "The Death of the Electric Car" to prove this point.)

It's simple: Those in charge of the industry are not going to make the world a cleaner place without making a profit while doing so. Unless they're forced to, which won't happen with Big Oil owning the lease on the White House.

- Calin
Posted by CalinDay (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Energy Independence and Waste Solution
Technology to provide a sustainable renewable fuel source AND solve the world's waste/landfill problems is available NOW. Spread the word before it is silenced since this has the potential to change the world.

Original 2003 Discover Article: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.discover.com/issues/may-03/features/featoil/" target="_newWindow">http://www.discover.com/issues/may-03/features/featoil/</a>

2004 Follow-Up Article: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.discover.com/issues/jul-04/features/anything-into-oil/" target="_newWindow">http://www.discover.com/issues/jul-04/features/anything-into-oil/</a>

2006 Follow-Up Article: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.discover.com/issues/apr-06/features/anything-oil/?page=1" target="_newWindow">http://www.discover.com/issues/apr-06/features/anything-oil/?page=1</a>

Original 2003 Discover Article: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.discover.com/issues/may-03/features/featoil/" target="_newWindow">http://www.discover.com/issues/may-03/features/featoil/</a>

2004 Follow-Up Article: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.discover.com/issues/jul-04/features/anything-into-oil/" target="_newWindow">http://www.discover.com/issues/jul-04/features/anything-into-oil/</a>

2006 Follow-Up Article: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.discover.com/issues/apr-06/features/anything-oil/?page=1" target="_newWindow">http://www.discover.com/issues/apr-06/features/anything-oil/?page=1</a>

Changing World Technologies Website: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.changingworldtech.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.changingworldtech.com/</a>
Posted by fxjamusa (36 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Dual Citizenships, "Energy Independence...
... and Waste Solution. Technology to provide a sustainable renewable" energy - Think "Hydro Power"!
Posted by Commander_Spock (3123 comments )
Link Flag
Push your municipality to move to flex fuel vehicles
Mandate that waste management have separate collections for biomass.

These are the baby steps necessary to make these efforts successful.
Posted by jamie.p.walsh (288 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Flex Fuel Mandate
All passenger vehicles, with the exception of diesel vehicles and other alternative fuel motors (like natural gas), must be able to run on E-85 by 2012..

The mandate will cause wallstreet to invest highly in ethanol from refining to piping, pumps to end distribution.

Problem solved...
Posted by SiXiam (69 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Flex Fuel Cars Already Here (in the US!)
According to what I saw on 60 minutes, most car manufacturer (especially the ones with a presence in Brazil) have "flex fuel" available as a no-cost option. Apparently, what is needed are more ethanol pumps, to increase flex-fuel awareness.
Posted by batavier (66 comments )
Link Flag
HEMP is the 2.0!
Industrial hemp (marijuana = scary) would provide a cheap &#38; efficient source for cellulosic ethanol.
Do a Google search for :hemp ethanol &#38; check it out
Posted by dahnb (49 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Just more consumption-based profit
Considering the cost in resources (including oil, foreign or domestic) to produce ethanol, the savings would be trivial. The only answer would be to develop technologies that let us reclaim the energy from the abundant waste products we are producing. Virtually every acre of arable land in the US is already being cultivated. We need ways to make better use of the resources at hand and not find excuses to consume more.
Posted by catbus99 (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Excuses, excuses.
I?ve gotten tired of the same excuses on why ethanol is not suitable as an energy source.
"Not enough ethanol pumps". This didn?t stop Brazil from going over to ethanol decades ago, and it wouldn?t stop every car on the road today from using a 10% mix right Now.
"Ethanol from cellulose". As the technology has existed since World War II, you want me to believe that it can?t be improved on today? It?s no more difficult than cracking fuel from oil tar. Remember, aluminum was once worth it?s weight in gold before someone worked out a better way to refine it.
"Cost of feed stuffs". Half the food grown in North America rots before it gets to your table, and ends up as waste. Produces would pay you to haul it away.
"Ethanol has the same greenhouse footprint as gasoline". Now this one really gets me - I put it up there with people who don?t believe in global warming. Seriously, Every carbon atom that is put into the atmosphere from burning bio-fuel came from the atmosphere to start with! Net result zero! Even factoring in fertiliser and farm equipment (running on bio-fuel) the results are a small fraction of what the petroleum industry needs to just to ship and refine crude.
Posted by Marcus Westrup (630 comments )
Reply Link Flag
ethenol and 85%blend
people who tell you that corn ethanol is the way to go are fooling.the only really successful eth-
anol program is in Brazil! they use sugar cane and
fuel process by burning remaing plant.and they have three growths per year.at the present state of technology 85 blend is about 75% efficient ov-
eral.
and Canada would be stupid to support a wastefull
energy America!the Bush administration in a series of stupid policies has done little to cor-
rect a waste full energy splurge.
I am Canadian! I have bought U.S. cars for 40 years. my next car will be a Toyota(made in U.S.).
Government,auto execs and union execs have done
the N.A. car industry a disservice by perpetuating
a comfortable present at the expense of a prosperous future. I am very pessimistic about the
"big three" ability to recover. and ethanol is
not the answer. CONSERVATION in smaller and more efficient vehicles!if tranportation becomes very expensive you cannot even imagine how badly it will affect our lives.
Posted by mtoc (58 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hopefully you are French Canadian
Unless English is your second language, there is really no excuse for your poor spelling, poor grammar, and just plain bad sentance structure.
Posted by dahnb (49 comments )
Link Flag
Need a balanced restructured approach
The problem is people are looking at one solution to replace all the others. What we need is a balanced approach, that puts greater %'s to the cleaner alternatives. First lets look at where we get our energy:

1) Natural Gas (24%)
2) Coal (23%)
3) Petroleum (39%)
4) Nuclear (8%)
5) Renewable (6%)

Of the 6% of renewable energies:

5a) Wind (2%)
5b) Solar (1%)
5c) Water (Hydroelectric) (40%)
5d) Biomass (47%)
5e) Geothermal (5%)

What we need is lower %'s of use in Coal and Petroleum. What needs to increase is Renewable and Nuclear. The big one being Nuclear. Nuclear is much safer and more efficent then in the past. Renewable is tough to increase at a large % because it depends on location for some of the renewable energies. Like water and wind power is not always available in all locations.

What about cars? The big 3 replacements are:

1) Battery
2) Ethanol
3) Gasoline

Once again, a balanced approach. Why not use all three? Build a battery car, that runs on a Flex motor, that also has a standard power plug. You get the best of all the techs! The plug in car gets engery from the energy sources listed at the top of this write up. I didn't mention Hydrogen because to put a new fuel infrastructure in place is not easy (takes a long time), and Flex motors allow for the use of Gasoline and Ethanol, which seems like an easier transition.

SECOND APPROACH:

Conservation! We need to improve conservation efficiently. The two big ones I see based on the issues above:

1) Improve efficiently of the power grid. (too much wasted power)
2) Better means of transportation.

Being from the US and having visited Tokyo Japan, I know us as Americans have a lot of work in the transportation area.

So to summarize using an ealier sentence:

"What we need is a balanced approach, that puts greater %'s to the cleaner alternatives."

Thanks.
Posted by thelemming (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
An Energy Source...
... you may have left out from your list of alternative energy sources would be that of the Atomic Absorption Unit that utilizes "Ammonia"! I know of this "alternative energy source" having worked alongside a scientist on a research project on this decades ago!
Posted by Commander_Spock (3123 comments )
Link Flag
What about kudzu?
Anyone who takes a drive in the South will notice the proliferation of kudzu growing up trees and utility poles. Why not use it to make ethanol? After all, what else is it good for? Leave the hemp for making cloth!
Posted by gapotter (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Kudzu
Excellent idea! Too logical though. No politician would ever support it! Yep, good old kudzu, that noxious, choking weed and high protein animal feed of choice should be a good biomass generator, and it requires little oversight, and NO fertilizer. Like I said - too easy, too cheap, too logical, hence a big no-go.
Posted by Dat Mystery Guy (3 comments )
Link Flag
Fuel use and who (doesn't) wants change
First I must qualify what I say by saying that we have a car that is among the most efficient. Prius. Today we attended a meeting about 17 miles from our house. Before returning we filled up at a station (for 2.129 dollars a gallon) and upon entering our driveway the consumption was about 53 MPG. No Detroit or European vehicle can match this gas economy.

My beef is that no entity in the chain has any interest in improving efficiency to match this figure. Auto makers (with two exceptions) stress the output power of engines to sell cars. No level of taxing motor fuel by state and federal has any desire to increase economy and reduce road tax per mile. And of course the big oil has a nearly inelastic demand at any price. Only a brave few will pump real money to reduce fuel use. We will collect a significant reduction in our federal income tax for this purchase. It is the one bright spot in the whole universe, and I wonder how it ever escaped the otherwise resistant power structure of Big Bad Oil...

That the tax credit is now half the size that we will get is a shame. The bigger shame is that no domestic maker comes close to matching this performance.

When stopped in traffic the engine is OFF! And it stops when the brakes are applied. The retarding force is not from brake linings, but the electric motor becoming a generator converting kinetic energy into charging the battery.

It is left to the reader to find the other smart engineering advances that conserves energy, and also simplifies the power train.
Posted by bigduke (78 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Fuel efficient auto - Prius
This is hardly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of the Prius. Routinely, you hear about engineers modifying their own Priuses, acheiving the equivalent of 100-150MPG by adding more battery capacity, a 120v home charger, and disabling that stupid feature that will not allow the car to run on battery alone. Toyota should be doing this anyway.. As the Japanese say JIGOKU! (crazy)
Posted by Dat Mystery Guy (3 comments )
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