Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Terminology Tuesday: Cellulosic Ethanol

It's getting harder and harder to come up with these Terminology Tuesday words and phrases, so if you have any burning questions, please let me know! maria underscore energia at yahoo dot com.

With all the negativity - justified or not - around corn ethanol lately, you've probably heard a lot of buzz about cellulosic ethanol. Cellulose is the main carbohydrate in living plants and cellulosic ethanol is ethanol made from the cellulose - the non-edible - parts of plants. Rather than fuel derived corn, cellulosic ethanol can be made from woods or grasses that are not competitive with food for livestock or people.

There are many cellulosic ethanol testing plants in the works, although we've yet to see anything brought to scale. One of the most recent projects is at Oklahoma State University's Bioenergy Center, which has planted switchgrass and sorghum for a facility in Kansas, expected to be operational in 2010.

via Wikipedia


JAG, NGI_CEO said...

Cellulosic ethanol can also be made from solid waste and agricultural waste.

New technology has allowed solid waste from landfills to be digested in such a way as to produce gas, methane, which ultimately is burned more cleanly than it would be if the process were left to natural decomposition. Even manure from cows and chickens can be turned into ethanol.

Cellulosic ethanol is not the end, it is only the second generation of ethanol. In three or five years or so along comes algae oil. Algae hypergrows with CO2, so it can be used to clean emissions. Bend the smokestack back down around to feed large scale algae pond blooms that are harvested regularly.

The better news is that some strands of algae are up to 60% oil by mass. The algae is pressed into pure biodiesel and the leaves are dried and fermented into ethanol. win/win. Cellulosic technology has advanced into the 1 gallon of water and $1 for each gallon of ethanol produced range. Here are some names of companies pursuing second and third generation ethanol: Coskata, Iogen, OriginOil.

Waste energy and cellulosic ethanol go hand-in-hand. They, most probably, will be installed at each landfill site and hooked into the grid and added to the pipeline. Closed-loop system is the name for using waste material as a feedstock.

Maria Surma Manka said...

Thanks for that detail Jag! Algae is definitely an exciting fuel source...I hope we see great things from it.

Thaidiamond said...

I believe you're on the right track in discussing second and third generation biofuel technololgies.

Has this blog discussed the potential of algae?

The world's oldest plant can reproduce itself in 24 hours -- some species reproduce up to 6 times a day! That's because algae is a a single cell plant...unlike the more complex structures inherent in corn and other crops.

Algae doesn't need land to grow. And, importantly, sequesters more CO2 than any other plant in the process. Producing a lot of oxygen as a by product.

Add sunlight, stir in water and away we go...well kind of.

There's at least 60,000 different species -- and probably a lot more -- with some microalgae containing up to 50% lipids or vegetable oil.

Soy is about 20% lipids. The good news about soy used to be that you could claim that you only use the lipids for biofuel, preserving the rest of the bean for food. That's true but China, Malaysia and Indonesia have already complained to the EU about how its soy biofuel programs are driving up the price of soy oil in Asia. What's one man's fuel is another man's dinner.

Two companies I've come across have some interesting approaches.

Valcent produces algae in their closed loop "bioreactors" -- initial test runs were at 33,000 gallons an acre -- on semi-arid land in Texas that can't be used for food cultivation. To put that in perspective, palm, which I believe is the next highest source, can get some 6,700 gallons an acre.

Valcent thinks it can find the right algae species to get them up to the 100,000 gallon level. Indeed, they claim that if 1/10 of the state of New Mexico were used for algae production, they could meet the energy demands for the entire United States.

Go here for a very good video interview on algae per se and the bioreactor technology: http://www.scribemedia.org/2007/11/15/glen-kertz-valcent-vertigro-algae-biofuel/.

Also intriguing is SF-based Solyzyme. They're private and much more secretive, but they claim not to even need sunlight to make algae. If that's true, they just solved one of the major obstacles to industrial production of biodiesel from algae.

Chevron seems to be impressed. America's number 2 oil producer just signed an agreement the company. I'm guessing to get Chevron to open their wallets, they told them a lot more about their proprietary methods than the almost 'nothin' they told me!

Solyzyme claim they their "oil" can be used to make anything that currently comes from a convention barrel of hydrocarbons. Jet fuel, petrol, plastics...the whole nine yards!

Importantly, algae also promises no change in infrastructure required. They just drove a diesel Mercedes all around San Francisco. Just funneled their oil in...and away they went.

After all, they remind us, oil itself is essentially fossilized algae.

But something is already going on that takes a really interesting idea and elevates it to "breakthrough" status. NRG Energy is using algae to capture and reduce flue gas carbon dioxide emissions from one of its coal fired utilities.

Not only does algae have to potential to serve as a vital transportation fuel, it can substantially reduce CO2 emission in the process.

For a 'must read', go here (http://www.energycentral.com/centers/energybiz/ebi_detail.cfm?id=520) for Ken Silverstein's "The Algae Attraction"