Cellulosic Ethanol: Clutching At Straw ?  

Posted by Big Gav

Bruce's latest Viridian Note weighs in on the debate about cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass (or some more exotic genetically engineered alternatives that double as "sequestration groves"). Bruce is very pro the whole idea - but runs through a list of possible objections.

1. Most cars don't burn fuels that are rich in ethanol.

That's true. You'd need a new flexfuel fleet and "trybrids" would be even better. On the plus side, it's a positive advantage if these new cars are huge SUVs. The automobile majors are already selling flexfuel cars in Brazil. They know how to do it, unlike with fuel-cell cars. They can make money.

2. What about the many energy needs that aren't transportation fuel?

You can burn the grass directly as boiler fuel, or even make electricity with microbes eating grass.

3. Ethanol raises the cost of corn and starves poor people in order to fill rich guy's gas tanks.

That's only true of the starch ethanol that comes from edible grains. Cellulosic ethanol comes from grass, cornstalks and leftover sugarcane bagasse. Poor people don't eat those.

4. Ethanol takes more energy to make than it contributes to our society.

This is a largely academic distinction. Furthermore, it isn't true even of old-school corn ethanol, while cellulosic ethanol is a new, unheard-of process, that, if it really worked, would be hugely efficient at turning solar radiation right into booze.

5. If this cellulosic microbe cracking worked, somebody would be selling me booze made of their lawn clippings now. So where are the big cellulosic refineries? They don't even exist. Show me.

We'll have to take that pressing issue up with Novozyme, Danisco, Diversa, Abengoa, and Acciona EnergĂ­a. These new cellulosic startups may all pop just like dotbombs. On the other hand, if we don't somehow rapidly solve soaring oil costs and the climate crisis, there won't be any conventional economy left either. There are a lot of methods of going after the knotty problem of cracking cellulose, and we're getting better at most of them. This scheme is not yet prime-time, but it's not cold-fusion, either.

6. When you burn ethanol, carbon dioxide goes into our sky. That's bad, isn't it?

You're not getting it yet. This scheme means covering the USA with a Saudi Arabia of prairie. That means sucking CO2 out of the air and turning into a vast sea of sod. Most of the fuel plant is roots, so it remains underground. You're not going to burn that part. You're using green plants to suck the burnt coal and crude-oil out of the sky and turn it into topsoil. Unlike nuclear power, this scheme is a chance to actively grab the excess CO2 out of the sky and get rid of it. It's better than a closed carbon loop. It's carbon sequestration.

7. . Fuel-cell hydrogen is a much cooler idea than this hick-centric hay-bale nonsense.

Yeah, it is, but there is no giant Brazil already running on fuel-cells. By the way, Brazilian sugarcane consists of cellulose besides the sugar than makes rum, so Brazil's vast, well-established fuel canefields ought to at least triple in value under this dispensation. The Brazilians become the new Saudis. At least voodoo freaks don't blow themselves up.

8. . There's not enough room in the croplands to grow endless multitons of biofuels. We'll all starve!

It's not about fermenting our edible crops. It's about fermenting hay. There's plenty of room for hay. Hay grows where crops can't grow.

9. . Genetically modified organisms are the work of Satan!

So are heatwaves, warfare and genocide. We're getting way past the point of being picky here. If you really want to see renewable, sustainable solutions to vast, planetary-scale crises, there has to be some time and place where you are willing to take "yes" for an answer. The best is the enemy of the good, while the status quo will kill us. This is a very innovative game plan which could expand with great speed and which, at its basis, is all about grass. Are you really afraid of grass?

O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O
O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=

In Robert Rapier's conversation with Vinod Khosla at TOD, he noted that the alternatives listed below are all better solutions than cellulosic ethanol for meeting our future energy needs. While I'd agree on all counts (and add tidal power and a greater focus on energy efficiency to the list), I still don't see why cellulosic ethanol is a problem for anyone (grain based ethanol is a criminal misuse of resources of course) - it won't meet all our energy needs, but it will replace some of the oil production lost through depletion, and it has fewer unpleasant side-effects comapred to dirty alternatives like coal-to-lquids and tar sands.
# Carbon tax
# Solar
# Wind
# Biodiesel (esp. algal)
# Butanol
# Biomass to electricity
# Storage system technologies allowing renewable electricity
# Electric cars
# Electric rail
# General move to electric transportation

The New York Times also had a feature article on ethanol last month (which unfortunately focussed heavily on corn ethanol and ADM (an epitome of evil agribusiness in some eyes). They also have an article on solar farming in Germany.

The best place to go for news on new energy technology is usually The Energy Blog, and Jim has done a number of relevant posts recently - including a Roadmap for Development of Cellulosic Ethanol Production, a look at a
Xethanol announcement of a 50 MGY Cellulosic Ethanol Plant and a summary of some papers from The Union of Concerned Scientists called Fuel Economy and Biofuels: The Answer to our Liquid Fuels Crises (I think a bit overly optimistic, but this is just one piece to the puzzle) - plus as a bonus A Power Grid for the Hydrogen Economy and Clinton Launches Climate Initiative.
The Union of Concerned Scientists have two articles in its Clean Vehicles series: Fuel Economy: The Single Most Effective Step for Cutting Oil Dependence , and Ethanol: Frequently Asked Questions which are well worth reading and generally support my views as to what we need to do to reduce our dependence on oil imports. They have put some numbers on the scenario that they develop.

Their conclusion is: "The importance of fuel economy is thereby twofold. First, it delivers bigger savings in the near to medium term. Second, it makes it conceivable that biofuels could almost completely replace gasoline for our cars and trucks in the long term because we would need much less fuel."

The top edge of the blue area on this graph indicates the total gasoline demand for our cars and light trucks under a business-as-usual scenario.

If our average fuel economy is increased to 40 mpg in 10 years, we have some modest fuel economy improvements beyond that date, and also add in some policies to help reduce miles traveled, all of the oil in the blue area can be saved. The green area represents the potential savings from ethanol, if everything goes well in growing that industry. In the near term our saving from biofuels is modest, but by the end of the period biofuels nearly replace all gasoline usage. Projected demand would drop to the line between the blue and the green.

Their concern over the automotive industry is: "Over the past 20 years, automakers have used advancements in technology to add more than 800 pounds to the average vehicle and nearly double horsepower, while fuel economy has been allowed to slip. Today we have ample technology to preserve or improve current size, utility, performance, and safety characteristics, while increasing fuel economy to 40 mpg within 10 years. And over the next 20 years, hybrid technology can deliver even greater gains in fuel economy. This will provide the groundwork for us to make effective use of alternative fuels in the future, and will give us time to sort out some of the challenges associated with a shift to alternative fuels. ... The savings from better fuel economy would keep on growing indefinitely, while the oil wells would dry up."

Not mentioning plug-ins or all electric vehicles is a glaring omission, but to be kind their last sentence could be interpreted to include them.

They state that the long-term potential for corn grain ethanol is fairly limited—that we currently use about 10 percent of our corn crop to displace less than three percent of our gasoline needs—but that it is a key part of transitioning to cellulosic ethanol. The biofuels they consider are a combination of cellulosic ethanol and Fischer-Tropsch fuels. This scenario assumes that the yield per acre of cellulosic feedstocks is doubled and that the the gallons-per-ton yield from feedstocks of biofuels is more than doubled.

From what I have read their assumptions on yields per acre and gallons-per-ton are very attainable. Their article on ethanol provides a good overview on what we can expect from ethanol and provides some insight to their expectations from ethanol.

Continuing on the ethanol theme, Bioconversion Blog (a little bit too pro biofuels in my view, but the more people talking about energy the better) has some complaints about David Pimental's (who is now inexticably linked in my mind with one of RI's tinfoil posts on peak oil) analysis of the prospects of ethanol along with links to Pimental's response and some other interviews on ethanol with Ted Patzek and Vinod Khosla. Scott also has a post on how coal gasification and cellusloic ethanol production could be combined to perform "syngas fermentation" and increase the efficiency of the ethanol production.
I highly recommend reading the current issue of MIT’s Technology Review magazine. It features a well-written Special Report called “It's Not Too Late: The energy technologies that might forestall global warming already exist.”

The writers almost got the story right - but they failed to mention what some consider the most promising short-term solution to the knotty renewable-energy-global-warming-landfill-pollution-oil import-war crisis - namely syngas fermentation. Let me explain...

In one article called The Dirty Secret David Talbot writes about the promise of gasification (using high heat in a controlled near vacuum to convert the coal into a gas) for cleaning up coal burning plants of the future. It's better than combustion because you capture the greenhouse gases before they are spewed into the atmosphere. However, you still have to actually do something clean and productive with the syngas (CO, CO2, and H2) that is produced. Talbot speculates that utilities could sell the carbon dioxide to oil companies who would pump it underground to push oil to the surface while neatly sequestering the CO2 from the atmosphere.

A separate article is called Redesigning Life to Make Ethanol. Here author Jamie Shreeve writes about exciting advances being made by biotechnology companies (like the oft-cited Canadian company, Iogen) who are coming up with new strains of enzymes that can break the chemical bonds in cellulosic material to create glucose for fermentation into ethanol by a second set of micro-organisms or yeasts. There could come a time when a single, sturdy micro-organism would be developed that could perform the feedstock-to-ethanol "alchemy" all in one step. That could be decades off but partial solutions could be implemented now - albeit with crude, expensive enzyme concoctions.

What is missing is the link between gasification in the first article with fermentation in the second. Instead of creating a super enzyme to perform two very different tasks, how about using gasification to break down the chemical bonds of the feedstock and then use a micro-organism or catalyst to convert the syngas to ethanol? Using "syngas fermentation" there are several companies that have achieved very promising results (roughly 100+gallons of ethanol per ton of biomass). BRI Energy in Arkansas, BioConversion Technology (no relation) in Colorado, and Future Fuels, Inc. in Washington, DC are companies that are pioneering this technology in pilot plants right now. All are in the process of negotiating their first commercial-scale deployments.

Byron King at Whiskey and Gunpowder has an interesting look at some of the desperate moves made on the biofuel front by the Japanese during World War II in "The old man and the oil".
He was a frail old fellow, dressed in loose-fitting clothes, working in his garden and chopping potatoes. Less than a year before, in 1945, he was in command of one of the largest fleets that had ever been assembled by any nation. His name was Takeo Kurita, vice admiral of the former Imperial Japanese Navy.

A young U.S. naval officer named Thomas Moorer and his translator approached Kurita. They explained to the admiral that they were working for a historical study group, gathering information about the war that had recently ended for Japan on such unfavorable terms. They asked Kurita if he would agree to discuss his experiences. And so began a series of interviews of the former Japanese military commander by representatives of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, Naval Analysis Division.

Kurita held nothing back. There were no state secrets any more. "What happened?" asked the American officer. "We ran out of oil," replied Kurita, matter-of-factly.

Heading out to The Oil Drum again, Dave has an interesting post on Climate change and electricity from biomass which takes a bigger picture look at biofuels and proposes that we'd be better off burning biomass to produce electricity than performing complex processes on it to create liquid fuels.
Two recent deplorable developments and months of thought have inspired this post.

* The current liquid biofuels boom and bubble focusing mainly on corn ethanol as discussed by Robert Rapier here, here and now here. Is this the best way to use biomass? It is not and I agree with Jim Kunstler that we've got to make other arrangements for our future. The American cultural tendency is to maintain our happy motoring utopia at all costs. This tendency in turn underlies the misplaced enthusiasm for liquid biofuels.

* Two strong negative indicators appeared recently concerning the continuing fight to mitigate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and achieve some modicum of stability regarding anthropogenic climate change. The first is this report of a memo from the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA) resurrecting an absurd plan to discredit climate change science and prepare the way for a coal-fired future without carbon sequestration.

The second indicator is the new enthusiasm for geoengineering (realclimate.org, Gavin Schmid of NASA GISS). In this case, Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen, who invented the excellent term Anthropocene, has suggested that we put sulfur into the lower atmosphere to spur the creation of sulfate aerosols. This would have a "global dimming" effect (like after the Pinatubo volcanic eruption) and hence cool the Earth. This is also absurd (see Gavin's story) and is tantamount to giving up the battle to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As promised, I will confine myself to the US except for the following chart from the Christian Science Monitor New coal plants bury 'Kyoto'.

By 2012, expected cuts in greenhouse-gas
emissions under the Kyoto treaty will be
swamped by emissions from a surge of new
coal-fired plants built in China, India,
and the United States

"Environmental optimists were assuming the world was going to switch to [natural] gas, but when you're short of gas you use your own coal," says Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at the University of Dundee, in Scotland. "What you're seeing with China and the others is the cheapness and security of coal just overwhelming the desire to be clean."

As you can see, the problem is much bigger than American coal usage for generating electricity. Now that the context is established, I will talk about trends in the US while noting that we Americans have an obligation in this world to lead by example given that we use 25% of the liquid fuels and generate about the same percentage of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.


If Hirsch, Skrebowsky, Simmons, Stuart and the rest of us are right about the oil depletion picture, oil consumption will actually start showing declines in the near future. Assuming a 2010 date for the peak and a slow squeeze scenario as shown by Hubbert Linerarizations, we might further assume a 2% year-on-year usage decline after that date. Concomitantly, CO2 from petroleum as shown in Figure 2 will decline at some comparable rate.

However the picture for electricity consumption is that it may continue to grow at its current 1.8% rate (from 1990 to 2005), or even at a higher rate. The population problem can not be ignored in this context, nor can larger centrally heated or cooled residential & commercial spaces. We also can not dismiss the degree-days problem that is likely stressing our power grid beyond capacity -- this is happening now and may be due to climate warming in the present and may be exacerbated by increased warming in the future.

Declining petroleum usage combined with generating a significant fraction of our electricity using biomass could mean reduced CO2 emissions in the United States in the future. As I alluded to above, increased electricity supply can support various transportation options like electric rail, cars and streetcars.

However, US government policies (taxes and subsidies) must change if this scenario is to happen. Particularly, the two political parties and venture capitalists like Vinod Khosla must be made to understand that BTL processes are not the best way to use biomass in the future. This is a failed strategy to maintain "business as usual". That will not work. Climate change considerations as constructed by Jim Hansen must be taken into account.

As we make the transition to biomass for electric power generation, the US can create jobs and wealth, export technology to Asia (China & India), mitigate climate change and take a large step toward avoiding a longer term calamitous future.

Grist has an interesting little tale about "selling Exxon" - working out how to put it down is the real task though.
My family has been intimately involved with Exxon through the years. My great-great-grandfather Maurice Clark went into the provisioning business with John D. Rockefeller around the time of the Civil War, but ended up selling the nascent oil-refining part of the business to Rockefeller in the late 19th century. Years later, my grandmother's uncle ran Standard Oil of New Jersey, later to become Exxon; and most recently, my father spent his career working for the company in New York, London, and Rome.

Exxon has always been the reflexive place where everybody in the family put their faith and their money. My brother and I grew up drinking out of Esso mugs and wanting foremost to go see the tigers at the zoo because that was Esso's logo. When somebody forced Esso to change its name to Exxon in the United States, we found it petty. And when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska, we wondered what all the hue and cry was about. Wasn't it bad enough to lose all that oil and have your boat dinged up?

Our family involvement paid off, sending generations of children to college, helping them to purchase houses, and allowing aspiring novelists to take time off to write books. In 2000, I was trying to write my first novel after quitting my job. At some opportune instant, in between paragraphs, this thought lodged in my head: "I need to solve global warming." Being alone and sedentary in the basement, my novel bogged down, I was probably a perfect host organism for this rather gargantuan impulse.

The Korea Herald has a piece looking at 3 limits to growth - Peak Oil, Peak Grain and Peak Water.
A deadly combination of heat and drought is slowly wreaking a trail of devastation across much of the globe, and the full extend of this scourge will only be felt as winter nears.

The current phenomenon took meteorologists by surprise as it was unusually global in its reach. Like Murphy's Law, everything that could go wrong did.

Nourishment for winter burnt up under an unusually fiery weather, along a food chain that progressed from withered wheat crops to cattle that were hastily sold off for lack of grazing grounds.

Crops that survived wilted under the sun, yielding produce of lowered quality and quantity; leading ultimately to higher prices. Alarmingly, these were scorched in the surplus granaries of the United States, Europe and Australia.

In the United States, the first half of 2006 was the warmest since 1895, when weather data was first compiled, and the pollinating and tasseling times have since been set back by triple digit Fahrenheits.

The full heat though will be felt in winter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the International Grains Council and a motley array of other agro organizations are downsizing the total grain forecast for this year and nobody knows how bad it will get.

In Ukraine alone, the harvest forecast has been cut down to five million tons from the 21 million registered last year. In Poland and Hungary, some crops are expected to be 40 percent below normal yields, while milk production dropped by 20 percent in Italy.

There is a bullish piece on geothermal energy from MIT Technology Review called "Abundant Power from Universal Geothermal Energy".
The answer to the world's energy needs may have been under our feet all this time, according to Jefferson Tester, professor of chemical engineering at the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment. Tester says heat generated deep within the earth by the decay of naturally occurring isotopes has the potential to supply a tremendous amount of power -- thousands of times more than we now consume each year.

So far, we've been able to harvest only a tiny fraction of geothermal energy resources, taking advantage of places where local geology brings hot water and steam near the surface, such as in Iceland or California, where such phenomena have long been used to produce electricity. But new oil-field stimulation technology, developed for extracting oil from sources such as shale, makes it possible to harvest much more of this energy by allowing engineers to create artificial geothermal reservoirs many kilometers underground.

Tester calls it "universal geothermal" energy because the reservoirs could be located wherever they're needed, such as near power-hungry cities worldwide.

Technology Review spoke with Tester about the potential of universal geothermal energy and what it will take to make it a reality.

Technology Review: How much geothermal energy could be harvested?

Jefferson Tester: The figure for the whole world is on the order of 100 million exojoules or quads [a quad is one quadrillion BTUs]. This is the part that would be useable. We now use worldwide just over 400 exojoules per year. So you do the math, and you know you've got a very big source of energy.

How much of that massive resource base could we usefully extract? Imagine that only a fraction of a percent comes out. It's still big. A tenth of a percent is 100,000 quads. You have access to a tremendous amount of stored energy. And assessment studies have shown that this is thousands of times in excess of the amount of energy we consume per-year in the country. The trick is to get it out of the ground economically and efficiently and to do it in an environmentally sustainable manner. That's what a lot of the field efforts have focused on.

And to close, some tinfoil on the middle east, from the RI files...
"[Israeli] Defense officials told the [Jerusalem] Post last week that they were receiving indications from the US that America would be interested in seeing Israel attack Syria." And Haaretz quotes Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah as saying on Saturday that the "Israelis are ready to halt the aggression because they are afraid of the unknown. The one pushing for the continuation of the aggression is the US administration." And then there are a pair of Mephistopholean characters named Cheney and Netanyahu.

It's often presumed that Israel leads American policy in the Middle East, and that's frequently been true, which is why this war is strikingly and disturbingly different. The United States is actually egging on Israel to press the attack regardless of the cost Israelis may be expected to bear for the fresh blood its armed forces shed. George Bush spoke arguably his most frightening and truthful words last Friday, when he admitted that it's not the White House intention to create "a sense of stability." It's by instability - by creating "failed states" in the Balkans, Central Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere - that End-Time criminals stand to gain the most. That may be little surprise to those of us who know the playbook, but our humanity still can't help but be shocked by their unbridled delight in the "opportunities" now presented by the "new Middle East."

In the mid-90s, there was talk of a different, new Middle East.

On the evening of November 4, 1995, in Tel Aviv's Kings of Israel Square, Yitzhak Rabin spoke these words:
There are enemies of peace who are trying to hurt us, in order to torpedo the peace process. I want to say bluntly, that we have found a partner for peace among the Palestinians as well: the PLO, which was an enemy, and has ceased to engage in terrorism. Without partners for peace, there can be no peace. We will demand that they do their part for peace, just as we will do our part for peace, in order to solve the most complicated, prolonged, and emotionally charged aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This is a course which is fraught with difficulties and pain. For Israel, there is no path that is without pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war. I say this to you as one who was a military man, someone who is today Minister of Defense and sees the pain of the families of the IDF soldiers. For them, for our children, in my case for our grandchildren, I want this Government to exhaust every opening, every possibility, to promote and achieve a comprehensive peace. Even with Syria, it will be possible to make peace.

This rally must send a message to the Israeli people, to the Jewish people around the world, to the many people in the Arab world, and indeed to the entire world, that the Israeli people want peace, support peace. For this, I thank you.

And then he was shot.

There's a reflex among some on the left to embrace the lone gunman hypothesis, because they regard the alternative as an embrace of a hollow liberal myth. Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn regard John F Kennedy as nothing but a patrician cold warrior who would have delivered more of the same had he lived. Rabin receives the same treatment, if not more, for his harsh words and measures during the Intifada and for the flawed Oslo Accords. But their killers were not appraising them from the left. From the hard right, they were both men who had risen through the system and had become traitors to it.


Thanks for the re-hash. Did you possibly overlook the concern expressed by Tad Patzek (who recently co-authored a paper with Pimentel).

He observed that no one is saying much about the effect over time of diverting agricultural or forestry waste. Example: Making pellets for stoves or gasification from chaff rather than plowing it back into the soil.)

He also critiques estimates done with agricultural feedstocks, such as switchgrass. Many of the assumptions are drawn from small, short-term tests that may make estimates overly optimistic.

The Khosla Crowd is focusing on a starting point, i.e., “What could be the least costly means of using less oil, satisfy the ‘powers-at-be’ (read the ‘oilies’) and make a buck or two by selling what’s good for what ails you.”

It's appealing because it's cheap and avoids challenging unsustainable consumption.

Thanks for the comment.

I don't see ethanol as the holy grail (nor wood pellets and the like) - I did note it's well down on my list of solutions.

I read the interview with Ted Patzek at G2G and I wasn't convinced by his arguments.

I am concerned how much biomass can be harvested sustainably without impacting soil quality - but harvesting switchgrass for this purpose (leaving the root systems in place) would appear to have a reasonable chance of working (see both Bruce's rant and the study I linked to from the Energy Blog - http://thefraserdomain.typepad.com/energy/2006/07/roadmap_for_cel.html - which says:

"An annual supply of roughly a billion dry tons of biomass will be needed to support this level of ethanol production. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and DOE finds potential to sustainably harvest more than 1.3 billion metric tons of biomass from U.S. forest and agricultural lands by mid-21st Century (previous post).

The report found that only 6% of the 1.36 billion metric tons would come from grain, and since only about a billion tons are required, none of the feedstock need come at the expense of food producing acreage."

Given this I think building some cellulosic ethanol production capacity can't be a bad thing (as a hedge against a steep post peak depletion curve for one thing).

But I see this more as a bridge to a better tansportation system over time rather than an end in itself.

I my mind, changing the way we use energy is a little like turning an oil tanker around - it won't all happen in one go - and the oil addicts won't want to go cold turkey - think of cellosic ethanol as methadone...

Thanks for the links to my entries on syngas fermentation.

My angle on biomass conversion technologies (CTs like syngas fermentation) starts with trash - not biofuels. In California: 1) we are facing "Peak Landfill" concurrently with Peak Oil and we need to take advantage of negative cost trash's potential as a source of energy and 2) since we mandate nearly 1 billion gallons/year of ethanol be used as an oxygenate (95% which is imported) and gasoline extender already why not kill two birds with one stone? This solution renders Pimental's energy analysis and concerns about arguments about food vs. fuel moot.

The L.A. City Council agrees with me and have unanimously passed a 20-year plan (RENEW L.A.) to divert waste from landfills to clean CT biorefineries that would molecularly recycle trash not already being recycled in material form. NO COMBUSTION IS INVOLVED. Gasifiers are designed to capture and transfer the gases to bioreactors for conversion into ethanol while co-generating electricity. Landfill waste would be reduced by 80%.

CTs can solve many problems globally - reducing waste and pollution while creating universal energy supplies (biofuels, electricity, and hydrogen) using the greatest range of feedstock imaginable.

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