Well, gosh all golly gee whiz, Ann. We just can't seem to come up with an efficent way to make ethanol from cellulosic farm waste, can we. Tell that to Poet - http://www.poet.com - a company that has been making ethanol from agricultural cellulosic waste for vehiclular use for FORTY YEARS NOW. In fact, Poet is one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethanol providers in the country. Hmm. Maybe someone should tell Poet it just can't be done. Or tell all those mid-western farmers who have depended on Poet to help them get rid of that trash and make some money with it for 4 decades it's impossible. (Since I am 3 days behind in making this post I don't expect it to be seen or commented on by anyone, most of all the article writer, but at least I've done my bit to bring some reality to this discussion.)
@Charles: The Renmatix process produces sugars (glucose and glycose). I don't see why ethanol produced by fermenting these sugars would be any different from ethanol produced from sugars obtained from another process. An ethanol molecule is an ethanol molecule.
@Ann: I see that you answered Rob's question before I did! Thanks for bringing up the effect of rising corn prices on the poor in Latin America. This is a story that many people in the U.S. know nothing about.
@Rob: You're right that switching acreage from food crops to (say) switchgrass in order to make biopolymers would have the same effect on global food supplies as making biopolymers from food crops.
The advantage of the technology described in this article (as the title alludes to) is that you could use waste biomass, such as corn leaves and stalks, to produce sugars. This way you wouldn't need to plant any additional acreage, or switch any acreage away from food crops.
It's true that the use of grains as animal feed may not be the most efficient use of land or food crops, but at least the animals which are fed with the grains wind up as food for people.
OK, I get it. I remember now how corn prices rose during the time when ethanol was restricted to corn crops. Yes, it makes sense now. I also like the idea of consumer materials that are otherwise bound for the landfill.
Rob, it's hugely important. Growing food crops purely for use as biofuels and other non-food uses is a problem in several ways. Aside from sequestering land, the bigger problem is that it drives up the prices of human food (as well as prices for animal feed). The higher price of corn in particular has been devastating to poor people in Latin America, for example, who are on the edge as it is.
Diverting the non-food trash from food crops grown as food crops would make a lot of sense, in fact, perhaps the most sense, but is not yet being done. Even growing non-food crops, such as switchgrass, for biofuels, etc. would make more sense.
Nice article, Ann. A quick question -- why does it matter if food crops are used? I would think it's the fertile land that's taken up that matters. What you grow on it for materials doesn't really matter. As for eating into the food supply (so to speak), cows are pigs do more to eat up food land than materials ever will.
Thanks everyone for your feedback. I just had an interview with a research group yesterday that made me smarter about the complexities of the cellulose-to-ethanol chain, but thanks, Dave for pointing out the goofs. The Freedonia Group has just completed a major study of bioplastics and they had some interesting things to day. First, consumers *do* care and that's why most of the volume to date has been in less durable bioplastics to replace things like trash bags. Things made with the more durable stuff, aka engineering plastics, is a different matter. And unfortunately, most bioplastics of any kind are still being made from food crops, not from non-food crops like switchgrass. Stay tuned--a March feature will address more of this in detail
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