Ethanol, the Next Generation: Why Corn Is Out and Cellulose Is In

Ethanol Fuel, The Next Generation: Why Cellulose Is In Since the 1970s, the U.S. has subsidized ethanol produced from food crops, especially from corn, thus providing a homegrown, alternative fuel source for our automobiles. But for multiple reasons, from its environmental impacts to its effect on world food prices, the "first-generation" process of using corn to make fuel has drawn a lot of opposition in recent years.

So, entrepreneurs have focused on new, "second-generation" methods for making ethanol from such sources as wood chips, grasses, weeds or algae.

Entrepreneurs and investors in the U.S. expect that the growing public skepticism about first-generation ethanol -- a skepticism reflected in the statements of some lawmakers -- may in months ahead generate a more welcoming environment for second-generation alternatives that once seemed wildly speculative. Central to these alternatives are plans to use genetically modified microorganisms to break down cellulose, the chief component in the cell walls of plants, into sugar, and ferment that sugar into ethanol. The end product is known as cellulosic ethanol.

At the leading edge of this trend is Mascoma, a five-year-old biofuels company with big plans for cellulosic ethanol. On Jan. 13, Mascoma announced a deal with Fortune 500 company Valero (VLO) under which the petro-giant will invest up to $50 million in a plant that Mascoma plans to construct in Kinross Charter Township, Mich., and buy the 40 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year that the plant will produce starting in 2013.

As Bill Brady, CEO of Mascoma explains it, the deal pushes the Kinross site to the head of a crowded field in the race to become the first facility creating cellulosic ethanol on a commercially viable scale. Mascoma has tested its consolidated bioprocessing technology at a demonstration facility in Rome, N.Y., and says it's pleased with the results there.

A Question of Energy-Efficient Energy

Whether it's in wine, spirits or a potential fuel, ethanol -- C2H5OH -- is what one gets from fermenting sugar. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of sugar-growing land in the U.S., so most of the ethanol produced here for fuel now comes from corn. And while plentiful sugar can be extracted from corn, it first has to be broken down: Its starches must be separated from other components and then converted through the use of enzymes into sugars, before those sugars can be fermented.

But over the past decade, skepticism has grown concerning the social value of these processes -- and the subsidies necessary to keep them commercially viable. In 2004, Tad Patzek, a geoengineering professor then at the University of California-Berkeley gave an academic voice to this skepticism. Patzek's paper estimated that the cumulative energy used to create ethanol -- the energy expended farming the corn plus energy expended in its post-harvest processing -- is six times greater than the energy it makes available to somebody's automobile.

By 2010, the U.S. ethanol industry was consuming 41% of the nation's corn -- 15% of the world's supply. To many, even former supporters of corn-ethanol production, this level of consumption was just intuitively wrong. In November 2010, former Vice President Al Gore issued a public apology for his own years of support of this industry: "First-generation ethanol, I think, was a mistake," Gore said. He admitted that one of his reasons for supporting early ethanol efforts was political ambition: "I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president."

A Last Hurrah?

Corn ethanol, it should be noted, doesn't reduce energy's carbon footprint significantly compared to gasoline, in part because the ground used to grow the corn itself releases carbon with each annual round of planting and harvesting. A Duke University study has indicated that switchgrass and other sources of cellulose -- and thus, ultimately, of ethanol -- that don't require annual replowing and planting are a better option from this point of view.

In December, the lame-duck Congress voted to extend a controversial pro-ethanol tax credit for one year, but it did so amid unusually vociferous expressions of reluctance. Ken Root, writing in The High Plains Journal, said the extension had been enacted against the odds and had the character of a last hurrah.

Andrew Soare, a research associate at Lux Research, summarizes recent developments: "Conventional corn- or sugar-derived ethanol is definitely on the decline. New capacity is not being built, and even the existing capacity of ethanol facilities is not fully employed. This has shifted attention to new ways of producing ethanol."

The Coming Second-Generation Shakeout

Those second-generation methods will themselves soon experience a shakeout, Soare believes. "As developments come closer to [commercial] scale, there will be a big separation between those who have the right partners and technology on the one hand and those who are mostly hype on the other," he says.

One of Mascoma's investors, Flagship Ventures, a VC firm headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., is heavily invested in a range of emerging technologies. Jim Matheson, a general partner at Flagship, agrees with Soare that a shakeout is soon coming, but he expresses optimism that Mascoma will be on the sunny side of it.

Even to optimists, though, it appears unlikely that cellulosic ethanol will be cost effective without public assistance any time soon. The state of Michigan has contributed $23.5 million to the funding of Mascoma's Kinross project, for example. Mascoma is also waiting for final approval of a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. Then again, corn ethanol's growth has relied on government assistance as well. According to the Environmental Law Institute, through a seven-year study period beginning in 2002, corn ethanol received total federal subsidies of $16.8 billion. And that doesn't include separate state-level subsidies.

A New Perspective

The political success of second-generation ethanol at this budget-tightening political moment may require a consensus about the generational divide. Says Matheson: "I think people -- and this includes the general public, legislators and the White House -- have a good sense of the differences between the first and second generations of ethanol. Three years ago that would not have been so. Three years ago the differences were less understood, because they were less sharp and less proven."

Brady shares that view and puts the case simply. The pressure on first-generation ethanol "has come about for two reasons: First, because that ethanol is food-based; Second, because it really doesn't produce a large net carbon reduction in the end. Mascoma's cellulosic ethanol solves both problems." Proving it can be commercially successful is the next step.

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In the early 1900s, Henry Ford and other futuristic, organic, engineering geniuses recognized (as their intellectual, scientific heirs still do today) an important point, that up to 90% of all fossil fuel used in the world today (coal, oil, natural gas, etc.) should long ago have been replaced with biomass such as: cornstalks, cannabis, waste paper and the like.

Biomass can be converted to methane, methanol or gasoline at a fraction of the current cost of oil, coal, or nuclear energy, especially when environmental costs are factored in, and its mandated use would end acid rain, end sulfur-based smog, and reverse the Greenhouse Effect on our planet, right now!*

*Government and oil and coal companies, etc., will insist that burning biomass fuel is no better than using up our fossil fuel reserves, as far as pollution goes; but this is patently untrue.

Why? Because, unlike fossil fuel, biomass comes from living (not extinct) plants that continue to remove carbon dioxide pollution from our atmosphere as they grow, through photosynthesis. Furthermore, biomass fuels do not contain sulfur.

This can be accomplished if hemp is grown for biomass and then converted through pyrolysis (charcoalizing) or biochemical composting into fuels to replace fossil fuel energy products.*

*Remarkably, when considered on a planet-wide, climate-wide, soil-wide basis, cannabis is at least four and possibly many more times richer in sustainable, renewable biomass/cellulose potential than its nearest rivals on the planet, cornstalks, sugarcane, kenaf, trees, etc. (Solar Gas, 1980; Omni, 1983: Cornell University; Science Digest, 1983: etc.).

Also see Chapter 9 on “Economics.”

One product of pyrolysis, methanol, is used today by most race cars and was used by American farmers and auto drivers routinely with petroleum/methanol options starting in the 1920s, through the 1930s, and even into the mid-1940s to run tens of thousands of auto, farm and military vehicles until the end of World War II.

Methanol can even be converted to a high-octane lead-free gasoline using a catalytic process developed by Georgia Tech University in conjunction with Mobil Oil Corporation.

This is from
The Emperor Wears No Clothes

By Jack Herer

A great book that could save the planet.

February 04 2011 at 6:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Any goverment policy or law that does not include OIL, COAL, natural gas and NUKE energy as making up 99% of Americas total energy totally dishonest, dangerous, distructive and anti-American.........face it folks...... these so-called re-newable sorces of energy such as wind mills, solar and ethanol are all pipe dreams....... They don't work.......and cost the taxpayers billions of dollars every year to produce....... One quick example--- The Obama "electric cars.......They run on coal need to plug them in to re-charge......... Many people still believe that there is not fuel involved..... Dishonest reporting from the LIB MEDIA and Democrat party is the reason.

February 04 2011 at 6:21 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

compressed air is the answer,but the gov. can't tax it

February 04 2011 at 6:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


February 04 2011 at 6:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Crude oil is the fuel of the future. We need to be exploring and drilling. China, Brazil and Cuba will be doing just that...Sorry children......

February 04 2011 at 3:07 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Again the government as no clue how to run a business. It spends taxpayer money on a process that is 6 times more inefficient. Raises corn prices, meat prices, food prices and distorts the market. The private sector is fixing the problem.
Give me the name of any government run program that works good without waste and coruption.

February 04 2011 at 3:01 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

What you really need is a liquid that could be electrically charged. Then, buy it like gasoline and run it through your car powered by an electrical motor, like gasoline through an internal combustion engine. Batteries will never work.

February 03 2011 at 11:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

It would seem to me that ethanol production from a crop, no matter what the crop, would deplete the soil of its basic nutritional value. Eventually, the soil would become so poor that the crop would grow on it. And, spiking it with fertilizer is just a means of converting one form of energy into plant nutrition. So there is a limitation in the energy contribution of ethanol if it takes half of the nation's natural gas supply to make fertilizer to grow grass to make ethanol. So, ethanol is not a long term solution and only works if there are large areas of land that a unused and has sufficient natural rainfall. Like Brazil, where they cut down the rain forests (don't hear much about that) to grow sugar cane. Actually, the best new source for gasoline is from coal, but the environmentalists don't like that.

February 03 2011 at 10:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hmmmm, tomorrow... 2:00 o clock announcement in Huntington, IN

Screw cellulosic ethanol(phase 2?)...too expensive to make and still has to be mixed witht gasoline from the middle east.

I guess we would call ours phase 3 then. Made in America... tailored to meet the desired standards... protects the environment in multiple ways... Made from a consistent cheap "green" source.

February 03 2011 at 10:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It is so interesting to me..that when one reads an intelligent thought provoking story..LIKE THIS ONE usually the comments are well thought out and not reactionary...but other more common interest stories draw all this bile talk...nasty...just goes to show that the nasty talkers are not interested in thought provoking stories...but only want to spill filth...makes one question their intelligence, and shallowness.

February 03 2011 at 8:12 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply