Is Alcohol the Answer to Energy Independence?

Is Alcohol the Answer to Energy Independence?

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.

Corn-Field.jpgToday, 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.

Cotton-Rope-Trees.jpgWhat 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.

SEE ALSO: Under the Hood — What is E85?

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.”

Camel-Oil-Pumps.jpgCrude 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.

  • smartacus

    -ethanol survives only because of  BILLIONS OF DOLLARS in government subsidies.
    -ethanol absorbs water, can’t be removed, can never be piped; it must be trucked.
    -small towns with ethanol fermenters contain more VOC air pollution (volatile organic compound) than many big cities

  • Robert White

    – What subsidies? Can you name one?
    – Ethanol can be piped, and is… you should visit Florida where thousands of gallons are moved daily.
    – Please share your data on your laughable VOC statement.

  • smartacus

    i thank you for making me look very intelligent.  It humbles me to know such kind people are out their making me look bigger and better than I really am :)

    -What possessed you to ask me to give you one subsidy? 
    Uh… 30 years and $20Billion later; something tells me yes I can name one.
    And that’s just federal.  I don’t want to get into individual states’ subsidies :0 
    BTW California just ended their ethanol subsidy:

    -Ethanol CANNOT BE PIPED.  You are thinking algae based bio-diesel.  Zinc-plated steel pipes cannot transport ethanol.  I’ve heard of some ethanol safe piping in testing, but, um… something tells me they won’t be as cheap or last as long as oil pipes. 
    What are you babbling about Florida?  Is Florida a corn state?  Where are the cornfields so i can drive by them. 
     I know of one ethanol plant that’s run by a Tampa company.

    – ethanol fermenters produce VOC pollution measured in tons.   That’s not news. 
    No matter how you look at it; everyone (including you) plainly knows ethanol is worse than gasoline.  You may think whatever you want of my post; but it is unconscionable for any American to defend ethanol.

  • Robert White

    You gave me one example from one state, and even it had expired. Point well made, thanks. The federal subsidy ended more than a year ago, it was called the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC). Google would help you with that.

    Ethanol is indeed ran through a pipeline daily, again Google. Here is just one company, which has been doing it since 2008:

    Who cares if Florida is a corn state, ethanol is made from the fermentation of sugars, and can be made from any source. Why do you insist that it has to be made from corn? Here in Kansas more is made from non-corn sources, and I would consider it a corn state.

    You said, “small towns with ethanol fermenters contain more VOC air pollution (volatile organic compound) than many big cities” and I asked for data to support. I didn’t see an example in even your cherry picked articles of that. My hometown has an ethanol plant, and I would gladly take the challenge on VOCs against Kansas City, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver or whatever you consider “big cities”. 

    It is clear that you dislike ethanol, but you offer no other solution, which typically means status quo. Petroleum receives billions in subsidies, leaks from pipelines, rigs and trucks daily, and definitely has a higher emissions footprint at production, distribution and consumption than ethanol. 

  • smartacus

     OK, Thank you for proving yourself hopelessly immature and childish. 
    I only suspected, but now everyone reading this has the absolute proof.   

    Everyone knows about ethanol subsidies, you tried to bluff that there never were any by asking “can you name one”    Then you turn around unsatisfied and say “you gave me only one example from one state”

    Hello, ignore the federal subsidy that lasted for 30 years and $20Billion.
    Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, much?

    You said ethanol CAN be piped when everyone knows that’s not true.  Ethanol by its hydrophilic nature absorbs water which is not good for pipes.  All you can show us is that one meager example of an ethanol pipeline from Tampa to Orlando.  Many people commute daily between Tampa and Orlando by car.  You aren’t convincing  anyone with your street corner card game.

    And how many similar projects from Tampa to Orlando have failed before this one?  Port of Tampa project ring a bell?  I already said I knew of activity in Tampa (i also know there was a port of Tampa ethanol plant that didn’t get beyond the drawing board)
    FYI  Florida is not a mid-western corn state or any corn state. 

    Who cares?   Why do i insist it has to be made from corn?  Uh… I’m not insisting anything (and I’m certainly not the one insisting ethanol is a viable alternative or even a cleaner alternative)  Why don’t you take off your “need to be right” blinders and accept that over 90% of ethanol is made from corn.  Look that’s just general knowledge, why should i even have to write this to try to enlighten someone continuously chanting Hare Krisna to block it out?

    -Everything you just wrote about petroleum; everything,  is nothing
    we don’t already know.  Except you FALSELY AND KNOWINGLY write that
    petroleum has a “higher emissions footprint at production, distribution
    and consumption than ethanol”

    Sadly; you lost the case for ethanol when you said “it is clear you dislike ethanol, but you offer no solution”
    This sentence is fallacious on at least 9 counts:
    1) why is the onus on me to offer a solution
    2)who am i to offer a solution
    3)did i ever introduce myself as anyone to offer a solution
    4)many many people working on it for many many decades aren’t being asked on the spot “so what’s your solution”  yet you asked me?
    5)reason you asked me is to try delegitimizing me.
    6)it was written in hopes of intimidating me into not writing back, thereby making it appear like my final answer was
    ” uh I’m expected to solve this problem but i ain’t got no solution”
    7)statement unsuccessfully attempts to brand me as the problem and  trying to paint me as wanting to maintain status quo
    8)statement incorrectly infers ethanol is the main fuel and we are looking for an alternative to it
    9)Attempting to substitute your own theme “There is no alternative to ethanol”  disregarding the author’s  “Is Alcohol the Answer to Energy Independence?”

    Do ethanol a favor and don’t try doing them any favors  😀

  • American101

    Make the pipe out of glass. I drink water from a glass!

  • Jonny_Vancouver

    Lol. Much needed levity in this debate, thx.

  • Cory Williams

    smartacus, do you work for one of the oil companies?

  • shagmaster

    I’m not about to start any sort of battle with “name this, name that” blah blah blah…. anyone with half an ounce of brains knows how badly ethanol performs, how horrible it is for our cars engines, how drastically it reduces gas mileage, that it is way more expensive to have an end product using corn or any other plant matter to make it into ethanol…… all this information has been available for public consumption for 2 decades, so, if you doubt any of this, don’t waste your time trying to flame me as I will not come back here to read any of it.. just go look it up for yourself. Plus, with oil prices dropping, domestic oil production and natural gas production up, the only thing that can happen is for gasoline prices to drop and hopefully the use of ethanol discontinued!
    Chew on that if you wish or not…… don’t give a hoot which you choose.

  • Jonny_Vancouver

    Somebody has been drinking the Big Oil kool aid…

  • Jonny_Vancouver

    Good article. Alcohol is the future of fuel. It would solve America’s dependence on foreign oil and, dare I say, fix it’s economic problems.

    Heres a fun fact: America spends over half a trillion dollars per year to protect its foreign oil interests. It would cost less than that to set up alcohol refineries that could provide all of America’s fuel needs, making America independent of foreign oil, and Americans would be paying roughly $2 per gallon of fuel at that point.

    Policies don’t get passed because big oil have contributed heavily to political campaigns and thus manipulate the government.

    Need real life proof? Look at Brazil. The only country to successfully to become independent of foreign oil. How? They started offering a choice at the pumps. They offer Ethanol, and Methanol (which are locally grown and refined from sugar cane) along side gasoline. As a result, their economy has experienced never before seen growth and prosperity.

    Here’s another example that couldn’t be more clear. A city that was heavily dependent on big oil going bankrupt, Detroit. A once beautiful place reduced to ruins akin to some post apocalyptic movie or war torn country. I’d go so far to say: A sign of what the rest of the country faces if it doesn’t give up its dependence on big oil.

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