I have already shared my opinion that corn-based ethanol is idiotic (see Let the Sun Set on Corn-Based Ethanol), and I have shown how the stock market punishes corn ethanol plays (see Corn-Based Ethanol: The Free Market Speaks). I even illustrated Brazil’s excellent progress on sugar-based ethanol, which represents the “correct” model for distillation of this renewable fuel (see US and Brazil Plan Global Ethanol Market).
In response to my ethanol rants, a reader with the handle iolight posted the following comment, “I don’t understand why you are essentially discounting the new studies… Improvements in processing are working; so, corn ethanol is becoming more and more efficient while buying us time… Your pessimism sounds unsubstantiated.”
To prove that I am not a complete ethanol ninny, I want to point out that a few pilot cellulosic ethanol plants are now coming on-line as highlighted in Technology Review, “Will Cellulosic Ethanol Take Off?”, and PE Magazine, “States Experiment With Next-Generation Ethanol”. Cellulose arises mainly from agricultural waste; the non-food bi-products such as stalks and corn cobs. My beef with corn ethanol is that it takes about the same energy to make the stuff as the fuel itself contains. However, if extra energy can be extracted from agricultural waste, ethanol production may become an energy-positive prospect. If cellulose material could be economically converted to ethanol, my opinion of this fuel would certainly be less pessimistic.
The good news is that Iogen Corporation already has an operating cellulosic ethanol pilot plant. Celunol broke ground on another such facility in February. Several other companies have plants in the works. The bad news is that despite these promising toe-holds, cellulosic ethanol is still difficult to create, requiring a multi-step process that is more expensive than its corn-based rival. What is needed is massive investment in technology to push cellulose ethanol past the energy break-even point and to drive the price down below corn ethanol.
When addressing questions of energy independence and sustainability on April 26, several debating Democrats brought up ethanol and the need for Apollo-Program-scale investment in energy technology. Perhaps the politicians will put the pieces together and funnel funding toward cellulose ethanol, which in the eyes of this blogger has bright prospects to begin moving the U.S. towards independence from foreign oil.