Ethanol From Biomass  

Posted by Big Gav

Wired has an article up on producing ethanol from generic biomass, rather than corn. This seems to be a good approach to look at, as the EROEI looks like being much better than the very low figure for corn based ethanol. Even better, it doesn't necessarily compete with food production (unless you abandon a lot of food farming land to grow switchgrass commercially). The long term impact on soil quality of constantly harvesting the biomass isn't addresseed though (which may be a problem).

Federal subsidies have made growing corn for ethanol a profitable venture for Corn Belt farmers while irking free-market advocates. Now, new technology for processing biomass from widely available plant and tree residue could increase Beltway bickering over ethanol funding.

Nearly all of the ethanol in the United States is currently produced by fermenting the sugars in corn grain, according to Robin Graham, the group leader of ecosystem and plant sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Most of that corn is produced in the Corn Belt of the upper Midwest, an area that benefits from the 52 cents per gallon federal tax credit for producing ethanol. Free-market enthusiasts such as the Cato Institute's Alan Reynolds and the Heritage Foundation have decried subsidizing ethanol production that otherwise would not be economically viable.

"There is no ethanol industry in the USA, but simply a subsidies industry," said Rogério de Cerqueira Leite, a professor at Brazil's University of Campinas, in an e-mail. "Corn productivity is low and the energy balance is poor."

The economics of ethanol could soon change, as Oak Ridge National Lab's Graham said that producing ethanol from the cellulose of plants is less costly than using corn grain. The cost of raw materials for biomass-based ethanol could be much lower, since tree and plant residue from clearing lots can be obtained for free, and switchgrass (a perennial crop that grows everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains) and corn stovers (dried leaves and stalks) are inexpensive to acquire, according to Graham.

Using corn grain to produce ethanol is relatively energy-inefficient when compared to utilizing biomass, Graham said. Producing ethanol from corn grain generates about 1.4 times as much energy as the process consumes, when pesticides and fossil fuels are factored in, she said. "The energy yield from cellulosic materials is like 10-to-1."

Iogen of Ottawa, Canada, and Danish company Novozymes are close to commercializing biomass technologies. The companies use enzymes to break down the cellulose found in the leaves, stalks and walls of plants into simple sugars that are then converted into ethanol. Iogen will break ground later this year on a demonstration power plant for converting wheat straw and switchgrass into ethanol, according to spokeswoman Tania Glithero. She said Iogen's current test facility is processing ethanol that powers a fleet of about 90 vehicles.

In April, Novozymes completed a four-year project in conjunction with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that reduced the cost of using enzymes to convert corn stovers thirtyfold. According to the company, the technology will be tested next year at a processing facility in York, Nebraska.

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