Sunday, December 09, 2007

Cellulosic ethanol: a form of fuel much more efficient and sustainable than corn-based ethanol.

The Gulf Ethanol Corporation claims to have made a breakthrough in processing cellulosic ethanol, a form of fuel that is expected to be much more efficient and sustainable than corn-based ethanol.

The breakthrough? The "vortex implosion disintegrator," a technology developed by Meridian BioRefining that is described as a "high velocity, high pressure process" that can transform biomass into cellulose powder in a matter of seconds using "sudden polarity shifts" and "molecular repulsion."

Is it the real deal? Who knows. Sure sounds cool, in a science fiction kind of way. Maybe it's got a flux capacitor too.

If it proves to be a useful process for creating ethanol from cellulose, it would indeed earn use of the word "breakthrough." While cars can be made to run on ethanol, and blends of ethanol, making ethanol from corn has serious problems. For one, it requires a lot of land that could otherwise be used to grow things, like food, that humanity needs. For another, it takes almost as much fossil fuel energy to fertilize and process corn ethanol as you get from burning the final product. And a lot of that fossil fuel runs off as nitrogen into coastal waters, like the Gulf of Mexico, where it feeds massive "dead zones" that are inhospitable to fish.

Cellulosic ethanol, on the other hand, can be made, theoretically, with waste plants and non-food crops like switchgrass. Experts say cellulosic ethanol's energy in-to-energy out ratio is much more favorable than corn ethanol.

“Cellulose is the most abundant plant material on earth,” JT Cloud, president of Gulf Ethanol, said in a statement released to the press. “By replacing more expensive food crops with cellulose as the basic feed-stock for ethanol production, we believe the price of ethanol can be reduced as its availability increases. We expect to work with existing plant owners to deliver cellulosic processing technology as well as building new cellulosic new ethanol plants.”

In other words, the potential for a real home-grown biofuel that reduces our dependence on foreign oil and absorbs as much carbon (we can hope) as it produces, may be a step closer to reality. Maybe.

Dan Shapley
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