Cellulosic Ethanol no longer in its infancy

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Thanks to Justin and company for welcoming me on here as a regular contributor. I will be posting on a number of issues, but one area you can expect that I will regularly be tracking is technology related developments and how they interact with the political world and policy. I also live less than ten miles from the Nebraska/Iowa border, so I’ll try to keep an eye on 2012 developments as the contenders test the waters there as well, on top of other interests like election reform, social issues, polling analysis and any number of things that I come across while skimming the hundreds of tweets and RSS feeds I go through every day. I hope you enjoy it, and now… on with the show!

We’ve been hearing about cellulosic ethanol for several years now, generally with the caveat that were at least a few years, and a few scientific breakthroughs, away from it coming to market and helping wean us from foreign oil. Unlike corn, which breaks down into the sugars necessary to be processed into ethanol relatively easily, cellulose is a hardy material that takes time and energy to break down. Its upside is that there happens to be more cellulose present than any other organic molecule on the planet. This is why millions upon millions of dollars has been poured into cellulosic ethanol research, genetically modifying naturally occurring enzymes to break it down faster and looking for ways to bring the price per gallon down closer to the price of gasoline.

Unlike corn, which takes land out of food production, is inefficient as far as how much energy it takes to produce and is a high maintenance crop, finding raw material for a cellulosic plant is easy. Wood chips from sawmills, the kudzu scourge spreading through the hot and humid Southeast, agricultural waste and even up to 80 percent of what ends up in our landfills could be used to make cellulosic ethanol.  Thankfully, the millions of dollars in research and development have begun to bear fruit.

First cellulosic ethanol pump in the worldA gas station near Ottawa is the first in the world to begin selling a cellulosic blend, called CE-10, to the public. Iogen, the company behind the demonstration plant that produced the fuel, plans to build its first full scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Saskatchewan. It has reached an agreement with the local government and Royal Dutch Shell to convert an old Mill site to their purposes, with the government even agreeing to purchase any green energy produced at the site. The running demonstration plant only has the capacity to produce about 3 million liters of ethanol each year, using wheat straw agricultural waste, while the new plant will be able to pump out about 75 million liters. It will make use of a more diverse feed stock, including agricultural waste from other crops, grasses native to nearby areas and even wood chips from area mills.

The march of progress continues, with a number of large companies making big investments into these technologies. Last year GM purchased a large share of Coskata, a big player in the emerging cellulosic ethanol industry, who claims to have developed a process that simplefies the complex and costly process of breaking down cellulose and brings the cost of production down to being competitive with gasoline. There are as many as two dozen companies with plans to build plants similar to Iogen’s, but the economic downturn is effecting their ability to finance these projects. Coskata is hoping to get some stimulus money, in the form of loan guarantees, to help finance its plant, with an estimated production of 50-100 million gallons a year.

As President Obama often says, if we intend to be a leader in the green energy industry of tomorrow, we need to move boldly in that direction today. Now is not the time to let companies who wish to lead us in there falter because of financing problems. Some are talking about a new stimulus bill, which most people reasonably see as a terrible idea, that would focus on these kinds of projects and job creation. The first should have done so, and I have little confidence that a new one would make it through congress without being similarly unfocused and pork laden.

We don’t get too many of these chances, where we can kill three birds with one stone. Job creation, independence from foreign oil and environmental progress can all be had with some smart funding priorities. Lets hope the administration recognizes this in time.