What’s old is new again. It seems like every clever idea or radical invention has already been thought of, existing in government patent archives or a 15th century sketch from Leonardo da Vinci. Retro design is a prime automotive example of this, but it’s not the only one. Ethanol is a promising transportation fuel of the future, just as it was a century ago.
Today, corn and sugarcane are the two main sources of this alcoholic energy, but if lab coat-wearing scientists have their way this fuel will be made from completely different feedstocks in the future.
Like the dilithium crystals propelling Star Trek’s USS Enterprise through deep space, cellulose is the secret sauce, the undercover gravy; it’s loaded with energy and researchers are trying to unlock its secrets.
What is cellulose? Good question, me. It’s the main constituent of the walls of plant cells. It forms their basic structure, like the bricks and mortar of a building. Think of tree branches, hemp rope or straw to help visualize it. Cotton, for example, is an excellent source of the stuff. Those white fluffy balls are comprised of about 91 percent pure cellulose.
As the foundation of plants, cellulose contains a lot of energy. Several companies are developing processes to make alcohol out of waste products like wood chips and grass clippings. According to Robert White, Director of Market Development for the Renewable Fuels Association, there are 26 cellulosic ethanol facilities under construction in the U.S. right now. Many of them are set to come online next year. Of these firms one of the best known is Coskata, based in Warrenville, Illinois.
Back in 2008 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan GM’s then-CEO Rick Wagoner made a significant announcement. The carmaker had partnered with Coskata and planned to produce cellulosic ethanol at a projected cost of less than $1 per gallon. At the time it sounded a little too good to be true, and until now it has been.
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In the years following Wagoner’s declaration not much has come out about the deal between these two companies. According to White the economic recession had a lot to do with it, drying up available capital and making it impossible for Coskata and other companies to get loans to fund or expand their operations.
From a chemical perspective the challenge these new-energy pioneers face is figuring out how to unlock the sugars found in cellulose. After that it can be fermented and distilled exactly like corn and sugarcane-based ethanol. “It all comes down to the magic enzyme,” says White, something companies are feverishly researching.
Overall, White is confident about the process. He says “it will definitely happen, and soon we’ll know at what cost.” He also says “I think there’s going to be a lot of clarity next year.”
But not everyone is so optimistic. According to Jim Hall, Managing Director of 2953 Analytics, “it’s one thing to do it in small quantities, another thing to do it in the type of volume you need to replace petroleum.”
Crude oil-based products are the de-facto liquid fuels today. They’re everywhere, powering just about everything from lawnmowers to fighter aircraft. “It’s not cheap,” says Hall, “but we have an infrastructure for doing it.” Incumbent technology is one hurdle any alternative fuel has to overcome before it can be accepted by the mass market.
When asked about the possible timetable for a cellulosic-ethanol breakthrough Hall says, “it’s like projecting when the comet will hit the earth… it will happen.”
Interestingly, Hall also points out there are huge parallels between the advanced ethanol and battery industries. They both face hurdles finding suitably high-energy replacements for gasoline, be it an advanced chemistry inside a cell or the next enzyme that will more effectively release the sugars trapped inside cellulose.
Once chemists unlock the secrets of cellulosic ethanol it will open the door to a wide range of different fuel options. One intriguing prospect is the ability to produce alcohol locally, opposed to shipping it across the country from Middle America, where many corn-based ethanol producers are located. White says drivers in Florida could fill their tanks with E85 made from leftover orange peels. Midwesterners could fuel their cars and trucks with switchgrass, while people living in large, East Coast cities might power their vehicles with ethanol sourced from garbage or other waste materials. The possibilities are astounding. Someday we may even start mining landfills to harvest garbage so it can be converted into liquid fuel.
From an infrastructure standpoint there’s at least one other advantage to waste-based ethanol. White says “you could have a cellulosic factory attached to a standard ethanol plant.” These two differing feedstocks could utilize the same distilling equipment, saving producers a lot of money.
Just like in the days of the Model T, alcohol holds enormous potential as a transportation fuel. It’s already produced in large volumes from corn and sugarcane, but the ability to make it out of waste is nothing short of a modern miracle. Cellulosic technology is good for drivers and the economy, but it’s doubly good for the environment. It can cut down on waste heading into landfills and reduce our oil consumption, and that is why it’s the fuel of the future.
You might be “driven to drink” by petroleum’s ever-increasing cost, but if cellulosic ethanol takes off your vehicle could be “driven with drink,” should scientists unlock the secrets and figure out how to make fuel from waste.