Ethanol still an industry problem


NMMA’s Washington lobbying team did a great job of getting some provisions into the recently passed energy bill that will slow down the push for increased mid grade levels over E10 in the nation’s gasoline. But I fear it’s kind of like saying that after you jump off your roof, you may experience contact with the ground!

The “ground” in this case will likely be an eventual stronger push for ethanol – can you say E20 or E30 or higher? The energy bill increases the amount of renewable fuel such as ethanol in our gas supply from 9 billion gallons in 2008 up to 36 billion gallons in 2022. The bill also includes the boating industry-supported provision requiring the EPA to thoroughly review new fuels for safety and engine damage prior to approving them for sale. Mid-level ethanol blends above E10 are known to damage marine engines.

Interestingly, the pressure to up the E formula won’t come from corn farmers or environmentalists. Expect it to come from manufacturers now in a high stakes game of turning cellulose into ethanol. “Leave the gun (corn), take the cannoli” (cellulose).

Low cost cellulose is the structural component of plants, the fiber that gives them body. It’s also the most abundant organic material on Earth. In fact, the earth would be hundreds of miles deep in cellulose if it weren’t for bacteria with special enzymes that break cellulose molecules down into fuel for their metabolisms. Cellulose doesn’t compete with food, because it’s inedible for humans and it makes up a small part of the diet for most domesticated animals. More importantly, it’s easy to produce with fast-growing plants like switchgrass and cottonwood trees, which require far less fertilizer than food crops like corn. A joint report from the Departments of Agriculture and Energy says the U.S. could grow more than a billion tons of those crops each year. Moreover, cellulose is readily available as waste — for example, two-thirds of what we find in landfills is cellulose.

That’s why companies and venture capitalists are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into cellulose technology. For example, BP gave $500 million to the University of Illinois and the University of California at Berkeley to create the Energy Biosciences Institute, which will develop the means to turn cellulose into ethanol on a large scale. The Department of Energy has pledged $385 million to six companies to build demonstration plants and $375 million to create three new research centers to find better ways of turning cellulose into fuel.

The challenge they, and many others, are facing is to solve the problem that bacteria find so easy: digesting cellulose so that it turns into sugar. Once the sugar is made, the rest is easy: Just use yeast to ferment it to produce the alcohol and distill the resulting alcohol to concentrate it.

Today, breaking down cellulose involves enzymes that are expensive to create. So, ethanol from cellulose isn’t competitive, yet. New technology will change that. It’s not a question of whether scientists can do this; it’s only a question of who’s going to do it first and best. When they do, costs for ethanol will drop dramatically, triggering new pressures to significantly increase ethanol and reduce reliance on oil, and boating’s battle to deal with ethanol will begin all over again.


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