by Kimberly N. Chase
- USA -
In Louisiana, the race is on to bring cellulosic ethanol, produced on this farm from sugar cane, to the consumer market. Photograph courtesy of Kimberly N. Chase. •The issue of corn-based ethanol is getting more complicated by the day, with increasing concern about rising food prices and questions about environmental impact. But researchers are developing ways of producing cellulosic ethanol, which uses woody plant matter rather than starch or sugar to produce energy, and they say the fuel is almost ready for market.
Cellulose is much harder to break down than ethanol from food crops, and companies are using industrial enzymes followed by fermentation with microbes to arrive at a final product. None of the dozen or so companies in the running has reached commercial scale yet, but the race is certainly on.
Summer isn't the best time to visit Louisiana, but somehow I found myself in the deep South just as things started to get really toasty. Straight off the plane in Lafayette I picked up a rental car and headed down country roads past crawfish restaurants and long stretches of agricultural fields. I soon reached the gates of Verenium, a cellulosic ethanol plant in Jennings, where engineers darted between air-conditioned buildings to avoid the sweltering heat.
After merging a San Diego-based enzyme company, Diversa, and a Massachusetts-based cellulosic ethanol firm, Celunol, Verenium began to work on producing the fuel from sugarcane bagasse, the leftover product of sugar production. With hopes of delivering cost-competitive ethanol by 2011, Verenium is now operating a demonstration-scale plant and plans to break ground on a larger facility next year. Matt Musial, operations manager for the demonstration plant, says that cellulosic ethanol will help to circumvent competition between food and fuel.
"We have the ability to use waste products of other things, and in many ways that keeps us out of the food chain," says Musial.
Verenium is looking at additional locations in the southeastern US, including Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. The company will also be selling its enzyme technology, and it's already licensed the information to plants in Japan and Thailand. Like other cellulosic ventures, it has attracted big money, with BP announcing plans to invest $90 million to speed the arrival of cellulosic ethanol to US markets.
• Verenium takes tons of agricultural waste, or bagasse, and converts it to biofuel. Photograph courtesy of Kimberly N. Chase. •"It's been important to have research money going into cellulosic ethanol at the most basic level, but it's also been essential to have some of these private venture capitalists putting money into it to commercialize it quickly," says Bill Moomaw, Professor of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Somerville, Massachusetts. Moomaw served on the International Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Prize with Al Gore. "I don't think I've seen many technologies that have gone from bench research concept, almost to commercialization in such a short period of time," he says.
The rush to produce more ethanol more quickly is rooted in legislation as well as economics. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandated the integration of biofuels, both ethanol and biodiesel, into the US fuel stream with specific deadlines, revising the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). With a requirement of 9 billion gallons of ethanol by 2008, the RFS sets the goal of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022, including 16 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol, according to the Washington, DC-based Renewable Fuels Association.
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