2007/08/22

Cellulosic Ethanol

One of the renewable fuels in US and Wisconsin news is cellulosic ethanol, and this blog will discuss ethanol and other biorefinery issues over the next few months.

Below is a brief glimpse into the world of cellulosic ethanol. I am absolutely not an expert on cellulosic ethanol or biorefinery topics in general. Blog posts on these topics will reflect my basic knowledge as a chemical engineer who is highly interested but peripherally involved in this sector. As I learn more about the subject, no doubt some of the opinions and interpretations you read here about ethanol and other biorefinery issues will change or become better supported with first-hand knowledge on the subject.

What Is Cellulosic Ethanol?

What is cellulosic ethanol? It is ethanol produced from trees and other woody plant materials such as corn stalks (stover), switch grass or sugar cane bagasse. The actual materials which can be converted into ethanol are the lignocellulose components, including cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin.

See the Wikipedia entry for cellulosic ethanol or the DOE (US Department of Energy) Biomass Program website for more detailed info about different sources of bio-ethanol.

Cellulosic ethanol is one of several liquid fuels made from renewable materials. Others include starch ethanol (which includes corn kernel) sugar ethanol and bio-diesel.

Short-Term Outlook

There are several processes to convert the lignocellulose into ethanol, and none of them are yet in widespread commercial use. The USA has a number of initiatives to develop cost-effective methods of large scale cellulosic ethanol production.

Energy independence efforts in the USA include proposed production levels of ethanol fuel. To meet the ethanol volumes targeted for the year 2017, 15 billion gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol capacity need to be designed and built. That’s quite a bit since we’re essentially at zero right now.

The short-term appears to be highly dependent on government grants and other financial support for the first cellulosic ethanol production facilities. It appears private investors are not confident enough about the biomass conversion technology or the economic value of cellulosic ethanol to invest $200+ million in large scale facilities.

Wisconsin Status

In June 2007, the University of Wisconsin-Madison was announced as the leader of the new DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (BRC), supported in part by a five year $125 million grant from the DOE. Wisconsin is providing an additional $104 million to support the center. The Great Lakes BRC will “conduct genomics-based research to remove bottlenecks in the biofuels pipeline, upgrade the procedures for processing plant biomass, and improve the biological and chemical processes used to convert biomass into energy.

Collaborating with UW-Madison on the Great Lakes BRC is Michigan State University and a number of private companies.

This center is one of three bioenergy research centers established with a total of $375 million in DOE grants. The other two centers are at Oak Ridge, TN and Berkeley, CA.

Other organizations or programs relevant to cellulosic ethanol in Wisconsin include the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative, Flambeau Rivers Biorefinery, Virent Energy Systems, C5-6 Technologies, and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The ‘Investing in Agriculture” conference (link to pdf brochure for conference) happened in Pewaukee, Wisconsin on August 16, 2007. In addition to hearing interesting presentations on general biorefinery topics and meeting new contacts involved in this sector, I listened to a few interesting discussions about cellulosic ethanol.

When I asked a panel of speakers at the conference what the three biggest challenges are faced by cellulosic ethanol in Wisconsin, the answer was:
  1. High capital cost of production facility
  2. Logistics, or getting the biomass to the production facility
  3. Improved energy crops for higher sunlight-to-cellulose-to-ethanol efficiency
It appears that a large portion of challenges 1 and 3 above are also covered by political and policy issues related to funding and crop price supports.

Aleksi Rastela, a university exchange student from Finland, also attended the August 16 conference. He contacted people at the conference and from relevant interested organizations not at the conference to discuss their interest in the Finnish ‘BioRefine Program.’ A Wisconsin meeting has been proposed for October 2007 with a BioRefine team from Finland and organizations interested in collaborating with this Finnish program for global innovation and progress in new biomass products.

Cellulosic ethanol and other biorefinery products are an exciting area that will bring countless opportunities for innovation, collaboration and economic improvement in Wisconsin, the USA and around the world.

*****

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