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Pardon the exaggeration above, but this Fuel For Thought discusses the potential of ethanol, especially in light of new ways to create it. Also, some major changes are in play--more opinion, less attempts to roundup every bit of data that comes my way. Less is more--after the bump.

Anyone who lived through the late 70s probably remembers hearing about "gasohol". You couldn't avoid the term--the US was going through an energy crisis. Gasoline was rationed, and suddenly everyone's turning down the thermostats, bundling up more, and wondering what could be done to prevent another such crisis. Well, as discussed previously, we're coming close to a new energy crisis that will make the late 70s seem halcyon in comparison. And this time, gasahol is... not an option.

See, gasahol is mostly gasoline--with a little ethanol (10%) or methanol (3%) mixed in. Back then, that's the way things had to be--cars were not designed to handle alcohols well, and gaskets and seals could easily corrode. Not anymore: since 1998, increasing numbers of American vehicles have been equipped to handle an ethanol-based fuel called E85--which has a little gasoline (15%) mixed in with the ethanol (85%). Add to this the facts that cars actually run better on ethanol (less knocking) and produce less emissions when they do, and ethanol-based fuels look quite attractive. In fact, the National Corn Growers Association recently showed off a GMC Yukon SUV that runs on E85 to help sell ethanol as the fuel of the future.

Which leads to the main problem of ethanol as currently produced--corn. Or, more specifically, foodstuffs being used to fuel our cars. Why problems? Because, first off, farmland being used to produce corn for fuel means less farmland used to produce other crops. It means oil-based fertilizers and pesticides being used to produce the corn. In addition, it means more of a chance of genetically modified crops being used, to boost crop yield, for example. And, because of the size of the crops needed, it means less work for family farms and more work for commercially owned farms. None of this is ideal, and what's more, there's no guarantee that there's enough arable farmland to grow enough corn to keep up with our energy needs. In short, it may not only be unethical in the larger sense, but ineffectual as well.

But corn certainly has its attractions, the most important of which is how sweet it is. (Think corn syrup.) And that's important because ethanol, like all alcohols, comes from the fermentation of sugars. We've got corn harvesting down pat, so it seems like a natural choice. Plus, we know how to make alcohols from corn, as whiskey drinkers know. But there are sugars, and there are sugars--and many things that are technically sugars don't necessarily taste that sweet.

Take cellulose. Unlike sugars like sucrose (baking sugar), glucose (blood sugar), and fructose (fruit sugars), cellulose is a a polysaccharide--meaning it is made when simple sugars are joined together chemically, like starch. And cellulose is perhaps the most common polysaccharide on the planet--all plants have it in abundance, from the most delicate grasses to giant sequoias. In fact, cellulose is to plants what calcium is to us vertebrates--it's used to build structure and to give strength to what would otherwise be an organic mush. So rather than using a foodstuff to fuel our cars, we could use practically any source of cellulose, from waste coming from paper mills and farms, to specially selected grasses that don't need much water and no fertilizers or pesticides. If we could use cellulose to make ethanol, we could start mowing our way to oil independence.

Cellulose gets its strength by forming chains from links of glucose. This produces water and releases energy. In order to reverse the process, we not only need to return water to the cellulose, but we have to add energy back in. But more to the point, cellulose is typically bound up with lignens, compounds that, like cellulose, are used to provide plant structure and strength. But lignins are not sugars and therefore unfermentable. As a result, turning cellulose into easily fermentable sugars can get expensive--at $1.40 a gallon, compared to the $0.88 per gallon cost of producing gasoline. That 50% markup is what's holding us back from adopting ethanol more broadly. So, how do we make it cheaper?

There are a couple of approaches available, but I'll start with the one that currently has the most traction--to wit, enzymes.

The Canadian company Iogen specializes in such enzymes, and they are leading the cellulose ethanol race. Already they have isolated the enzyme behind "jungle rot," which Korean War veterans will recall made cloth disintegrate. The enzymes break down the lignans, releasing the cellulose in a more extractable form. Once the cellulose and other wood sugars are extracted, the remaining waste can be burned, to provide the energy to convert the cellulose into simpler sugars and to power the plant in general. From that point forward, all you have to do is ferment and distill, and there's your ethanol!

So how much does this all cost, you ask? Right now, it's a little cheaper than typical cellulose ethanol--about $1.30 per gallon. But bear in mind that, as of now, Iogen has exactly one plant producing cellulose ethanol--and it isn't even using the process I just described. Iogen is currently looking for land for their first wide-scale plant, and plan to build 20 of them. As is, they estimate that by the fourth plant, the process will be refined so much that the price will drop under a dollar a gallon... at which point, E85 becomes cost competitive with gasoline, and perhaps eventually cheaper.

It's also worth noting that the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry has recently invented a new process that uses membranes and natural fungi to extract xylan, or wood gum, from plant matter. The process also produces acetic acid, which is highly useful industrially. Since xylan can also be fermented into ethanol, the process is worth looking into when it matures, but for now, my money is on Iogen. So is Shell's, for what it's worth--and as much as you might want to sneer at the mention of a Big Oil player, Shell does have a better record at funding alternative fuels. Surely they know a winner when they see one.

Well, this is all great, but while ethanol may produce dramatically less emissions, there are still emissions to consider. After all, it's still being burned in the car. Overall, hydrogen fuel cells look much better, right? After all, fuel cells have efficiency rates up to 50%, while internal combustion engines are around 18%. Well, guess what--hydrogen is not the only fuel that fuel cells can use. Ethanol works, too. And since ethanol can directly substitute gasoline in our current infrastructure, we don't have to invest billions to build a hydrogen-only infrastructure. In the short term, we'll have less ethanol, plus any carbon released is carbon that is already in the carbon cycle, rather than carbon that's been locked away for aeons. And the carbon can be reabsorbed by--you guessed it--plants grown for cellulose ethanol.

I don't know about you, but ethanol sounds like a good deal all around. The only major drawback is that it is not quite as efficient as gasoline--you'd wind up with slightly lower mileage--but when you factor in all the advantages, and add the notion that it could turn out cheaper than gasoline, it makes me hopeful that one can make a more elegant, economically feasible transition soon.

(I owe much to Sam Jaffe's excellent essay, "Independence Way," from the July/August 1994 issue of the Washington Monthly, but I hope the additional background helps make it more apparent why this is such a beautiful path.)


Check them out:

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How to make gasoline from gas by Jerome a Paris
Is "Blood for Oil" the World We Want to Leave Our Children? by Dem in Knoxville
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Return of the Yankee Curmudgeon: No Nukes! by Dancing Larry
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Also, Meteor Blades wrote the excellent series "Energy Plan: No Visionaries, Please" in 2003, which sliced and dices energy policy, and even makes julienne fries of the Bush-Cheney energy plan. Take the time to read it all:

[ Part I | Part II | Part III ]

While this isn't technically an energy diary, SeattleLiberal's Nerd Network News includes an energy section, and is a geeky good read all around, no matter your comfort with science. Do give it a read, you'll like it.


Originally posted to lilithvf1998 on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 03:16 PM PST.


Do you think we'll be adopting ethanol on a larger scale soon?

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70%14 votes
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Comment Preferences

  •  Read "Collapse" (none)
    Jared Diamond, who won a Pulitzer for "Guns, Germs & Steel," has a new one out.  Called "Collapse," it explores why civilizations fail and having read it, I think that the food/fuel equation will not be solved easily.  The convergence of global warming, soil erosion or depletion, combined with pollutants and population growth and/or aspiration for "first world" status (especially in China) will put entirely too much stress on planetary ecosystems unless we take some drastic steps soon.  This will include a lot of R&D for renewable, non-carbon reliant energy sources and conservation.  The problem with ethanol (aside from the fact that it will take food off the table) is that it relies on combustion, thereby contributing to the carbon issue.

    When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and the purity of its heart. - Emerson

    by foolrex on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 03:35:55 PM PST

    •  You missed this part: (none) any carbon released is carbon that is already in the carbon cycle, rather than carbon that's been locked away for aeons. And the carbon can be reabsorbed by--you guessed it--plants grown for cellulose ethanol.
      So it doesn't contribute to the carbon issue.

      Also, cellulose ethanol doesn't have to use food plants. Any source of cellulose, i.e., any plant material at all, would do. As far as I can tell, you could even use kudzu.

      But I'm reading Collapse, too, and I agree that it's quite probable that we are pushing our luck altogether too far. Any one of a dozen factors... no, make that, any five of a dozen factors, could easily combine to push our civilization over the edge.

      Massacre is not a family value.

      by Canadian Reader on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 03:53:01 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Kudzu? (none)
        In that case, if kudzu is a viable fuel source, North Carolina might end up in the Axis of Evil!

        "I was so easy to defeat, I was so easy to control, I didn't even know there was a war."

        by RonV on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 04:01:44 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  I like the kudzu angle! (none)
        At least for a while, we could get rid of some invasive, non-native species AND get some ethanol for our energy guzzling society.  After the kudzu maybe we can tackle tamarisk and pampas grass?

        When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and the purity of its heart. - Emerson

        by foolrex on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 05:31:58 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Airborne carbon contributes (none)
        however it gets there.  The natural cycle is interrupted when we take it up from the soil where it really belongs.

        But your basic point about unlocking the ancient stuff is too true.

        BushCo: exporting carrots and sticks to people who don't eat carrots.

        by rockin in the free world on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 07:57:51 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Good point (none)
          And, on average, it does take time for the carbon to be re-absorbed. Still, if I had to choose between carbons, I'd rather avoid what an earlier commentator called "paleocarbon"--a great word, I think.

          New Fuel For Thought: Pebble Bed Reactors--The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. Read and discuss today!

          by lilithvf1998 on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 10:03:19 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  Did you read this? (none)
      A large point of this article was on ethanol that is not based on food.

      New Fuel For Thought: Pebble Bed Reactors--The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. Read and discuss today!

      by lilithvf1998 on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 03:54:04 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  truly big saving (none)
    first, consume some ethanol, then, do not drive.
    •  Sort of on the right track... (4.00)
      Seriously, everytime I read one of these diaries on alternative fuels (bio-mass, alcohol, even nook-u-lar) I bring up the question concept of conservation. I'm usually ignored.

      I'd much rather that we raise CAFE standards and otherwise promote less driving (and other consumptive practices) before or maybe in tandem with developing more sources of energy to use up.

      Our society is in effect told that we have a manifest destiny type of energy policy. Gas mowers instead of push mowers. Four-wheelers instead of bicycles. Snowmobiles instead of cross-country skis. And so on, and so on, and so on.

      Until we change our collective atitude from one of crass consumption to one of conscious conservation (when it comes to natural resources), we will be putting a band-aid on a cancer.

      But you are correct. If God wanted us to use alcohol in cars, he wouldn't have put so much of it in bottles. ;^)

      "I was so easy to defeat, I was so easy to control, I didn't even know there was a war."

      by RonV on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 03:58:10 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm not ignoring conservation (none)
        But that would require lots of effort on everyone's part. Alas, the average American needs much encouragement that the Federal government has not been willing to provide.

        At some point I do plan on writing a FFT on taxing energy consumption, which probably would do much to encourage conservation.

        New Fuel For Thought: Pebble Bed Reactors--The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. Read and discuss today!

        by lilithvf1998 on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 04:37:12 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Hey, we were well on our way... (none)
          toward a more energy-conservative society in the late 1970's. But, well... Reagan got elected and, well... I don't recall what happened next. But, here we are.

          "I was so easy to defeat, I was so easy to control, I didn't even know there was a war."

          by RonV on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 04:58:15 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for the info. (none)
    It was good to see a listing of all of these energy diaries.

    The big questions are: How much land will it take?  How much of the cellulose can be gleaned from waste products?  What would the transportation costs be?

    It is good to hear about this, because some quite pragmatic people have given up on ethanol (sorry no citation here) based on land area that would have to be dedicated to ethanol crops.

    Note also that ethanol produced this way would be a good starting point for production of hydrogen by the reforming process, and with no "paleocarbon".

    Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. -Albert Einstein

    by Primordial Ooze on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 04:03:05 PM PST

    •  Not all fuel cells need hydrogen (none)
      There is a type of fuel cell that can run on ethanol directly: the Solid oxide Fuel Cell. No need for fuel reforming, high efficiency (>50%).

      The SOFC is a few years behind the standard Polymer Electrolyte Fuel Cells (the ones that can only run on very clean hydrogen) in terms of commercialization, but stay tuned. With the multi-decade timeline for the implementation of a hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure that few years lead for the PEMFC's will become irrelevant. Stay tuned.

    •  All good questions (none)
      But since cellulose ethanol can be produced from plants grown on non-arable land, that should open up possibilities greater.

      I will be watching Iogen closely, so hopefully we can have a better idea in the future as to how much cellulose will equal how much fuel, and based on crops, therefore how much land will be needed.

      New Fuel For Thought: Pebble Bed Reactors--The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. Read and discuss today!

      by lilithvf1998 on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 04:46:34 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  A disclaimer is required on this diary. (none)
        Do you own stock in Iogen, work for Iogen in any way, or have any other kind of financial interest in Iogen?

        This is a fascinating diary. But it also smells a little like a securities pump job.

        •  Oh good gravy (none)
          I've been posting energy diaries for a couple months now; if I had any desire to pimp a given company I would've been doing so for some time. As is, I have no job right now--and when I usually do it's in technical support--own no stock, and have no financial interest in any company, let alone Iogen.

          I recommend checking your shoes next time you smell something. :)

          New Fuel For Thought: Pebble Bed Reactors--The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. Read and discuss today!

          by lilithvf1998 on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 07:06:51 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Okay, thank you. (none)
            I hadn't seen your previous work, in the great flood of diaries here. I trust you can see how a post saying that one company might have the holy grail could arouse some suspicions.
            •  Well, not one.... (none)
              Admittedly, I should point out that Novozymes has been researching this area and have their own cellulose-converting enzymes. However, Iogen's work is already producing fuel with plans of developing on a large scale. Although there are no current plans for them to persue the US market, they can't rule out the possibility. It could make a huge impact, and probably sooner than anyone else.

              Sorry if I didn't state that outright.

              New Fuel For Thought: Pebble Bed Reactors--The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. Read and discuss today!

              by lilithvf1998 on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 10:43:30 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  Better living through chemistry. (none)
    Technological solutions will be a large part of humanity's coming narrow escape. [If we do escape, it will be narrow. If we don't..., ah, who wants to dwell on extinction....]

    I first read about cellulose-metabolizing enzymes in the Economist, of all places. Immediately it struck me as a paradigm-changing technology. Along with better, cheaper and pretier wind generators and structural solar  materials perhaps we could begin to turn this planet around, after we get rid of the current planetarch.

    Thinking dangerous thoughts in the birthplace of democracy

    by Athenian on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 04:17:22 PM PST

    •  We'll get by... (none)
      ...because it will become increasingly obvious that there's money to be made that way.  No profit in extinction... <snark>

      Humans: The cockroaches of the vertebrate line...

      If we trash the planet, none of the rest of this matters...

      by Dem in Knoxville on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 05:08:53 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Just can't do it (none)
    We will never see renewable energy until all of the fossil fuels are burned.  Why?

    Because you can't monopolize the consumable.

    It is no accident that Liberty and Liberal are the same word.

    by Sorceress Sarah on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 05:32:22 PM PST

    •  Or... (none)
      ...until a major climate change-related event takes place in the US. The ongoing pattern of generally increasing "unpredictability", it seems, doesn't count.

      I am kinda excited about this whole cellulose ethanol thing, you see.  I just heard about it on this diary, and think it may just be just the thing to tip the economic balance towards this, with "merely" corporate interests getting in the way.

      Unless, of course, they let all that methane hydrate out.

      Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. -Albert Einstein

      by Primordial Ooze on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 07:43:47 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  A carzy idea...... (none)
    Termites use an enzyme they make to break down cellulose into usable sugars. Now if only.....
  •  why convert to ethanol? (none)
    This is the point I do not understand.

    Natural gas is perfect for combustion engines and it is used to heat homes, make electricity etc.  Biomass can be burned anywhere with the original energy content, but conversion to ethanol takes money and consumes part of the original energy (this is how yeasts make the living!).

    Wouldn't be more logical to either burn plant matter for electricity or for home heating (one could produce pellets that could be automatically fed to a home furnace)?  Tree plantations would most probably be much more economic producers of fuel than corn, with much smaller energy input in the production process (and smaller erosion etc.)

    My way to energy independence and smaller fossil consumption would be to maximally substitute non-vehicle uses of hydro-carbon fuels, and to increase the efficiency of vehicles, traffic etc.

    •  The reason for ethanol (none)
      ...Is because a large number of vehicles already can handle it. Hence, we're talking about a far smaller investment in infrastructure, which means that the money could be used to invest in alternate energies.

      As for conversion to ethanol costing money and consuming part of the energy--sorry, oil costs money, and the process of extracting, refining, and transporting it uses energy. Ditto natural gas, of course, except there is less need to refine it.

      New Fuel For Thought: Pebble Bed Reactors--The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. Read and discuss today!

      by lilithvf1998 on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 07:12:09 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Two big problems with gas (none)
      It would require a new delivery infrastructure to supplant gasoline, and it's no better than oil when it comes to extraction, available reserves, price volatility, etc.
  •  Alcohol (none)
    is about to be the savior of my world. I'm off to the bar.

    "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." Groucho Marx

    by justme on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 07:09:11 PM PST

  •  A few facts about ethanol/methanol (none)
    Gasoline contains around twice as much energy per unit of volume than alcohol.  That's a big reason why internal combustion engines settled around gasoline as the fuel of choice.  Most bang for the buck (or gallon).  So miles per gallon would be roughly half what we're used to.

    Also, I didn't see anything here about how much energy is required to derive ethanol from plant matter.  I think that would be critical.

    As a transporation fuel, methanol (and I presume ethanol) also has several practical drawbacks:

  • It has problems with cold starting
  • It burns with an invisible flame (safety consideration)
  • It releases formaldehyde when burned, which is a greenhouse gas
  • A very interesting diary--thanks for posting it.

  •  Categorization (none)
    This is a CategoryEnergy diary, of course.

    New Fuel For Thought: Pebble Bed Reactors--The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. Read and discuss today!

    by lilithvf1998 on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 09:53:13 PM PST

  •  Brazil moved half of it's fleet on Ethanol (none)
    And they had lots of cars, as they are bigger than continental US...

    In the future people will wonder why most didn't challenge Bush's excesses
    The truth? Complacency was easier

    by lawnorder on Sat Mar 05, 2005 at 12:50:37 PM PST

  • Close


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