Cellulosic Ethanol

Ethanol is all the rage – President Bush wants us to produce billions of gallons of the stuff by 2050. But ethanol from corn (then most common source of the fuel additive in the U.S.) is already increasing the global price of corn and thus increasing food prices both here at home and in countries as diverse as China, India, and Mexico. The increased food prices are already generating some criticism from people like Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, but there will less shrill and more rational criticism coming from other quarters soon enough.

I’ve discussed ethanol previously and pointed out that the only way that largely switching over from oil to ethanol makes any sense is if we can start producing ethanol from sources of cellulose instead of feed products. Some sources of cellulosic ethanol include corn stalks and cobs, bagasse left over from the processing of sugar cane, wood chips left over from any number of wood products, and even good old fashioned grass. Well, today’s New York Times ran a story on the technological and business challenges to large-scale cellulosic ethanol production. In a nutshell, the enzymes needed to break cellulose into sugars that yeast can then ferment into ethanol are too expensive at this time. But now there is finally a much needed influx of capitol to fund breaking through the technological and biological barriers to solving this problem.

It’s too early to say for sure whether the organizations and individuals involved will be successful, but I hope so. I’d like ethanol to be a part of the massive equation that gets us to a decarbonized economy, but only if ethanol makes economic and technological sense, and only if it can be done without government subsidies. And until the issues discussed in the NYTimes article above are addressed, our taxes would be better spent on other projects that give more bang for the buck.

[Crossposted from The Daedalnexus]

5 replies »

  1. And thank you for the words “massive equation.” Unless somebody trips over fusion several decades faster than experts anticipate, it’s going to take a broad strategy to decarbonize our energy cycle in time to save the environment.