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Cellulosic Biofuel Finally Ready For the Road 355

Posted by kdawson
from the closing-in-on-mister-fusion dept.
wdebruij writes "After years of research, promises, and plenty of discussion here, biofuel from inedible greens such as switchgrass — and even from corn cobs — may finally be getting economically viable. Two enzyme producers, Novozyme and Genencor, have both announced that they can now produce fuel at prices competitive with current corn and petrol-based methods. This is particularly good news in the wake of another report that food-based biofuels could cause hunger."
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Cellulosic Biofuel Finally Ready For the Road

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  • Late to the party? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sjs132 (631745) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:07PM (#31161758) Homepage Journal

    This is particularly good news in the wake of another report that food-based biofuels could cause hunger."

    They JUST figured this out!!!????

    This is the problem with the green lords... they don't think ahead of the unintended consequences!

    I've HATED Corn based ethanol for YEARS... Everyone would point to some country in South America (Brazil?) about how good Ethanol was and the amount of fuel created etc... But that was end of process SUGAR CANE! NOT a major food source!

    Glad someone is finally waking up.

    • by russotto (537200) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:15PM (#31161822) Journal

      I've HATED Corn based ethanol for YEARS... Everyone would point to some country in South America (Brazil?) about how good Ethanol was and the amount of fuel created etc... But that was end of process SUGAR CANE! NOT a major food source!

      Sugar cane is even MORE vital. It's a major potable alcohol source (rum). Definitely not something we need to waste in cars.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ThiagoHP (910442)
      Brazil has been using sugar cane ethanol since the 70s and we never had any food price surges because of it. Most of our car production comes with engines that can use any mixture of ethanol and gas, so you can choose the best one by cost or by ecofriendliness or any other reason. Even if the sugar price raised, we could see it as a good consequence: people would eat less sugar, less calories, maybe even eating more fruit! :-) Corn-based ethanol and the US tax in Brazilian ethanol is a something completely
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by erroneus (253617)

        In case you haven't figured it out, the market in the U.S. is rather stupid and [over-]reactionary. The moment something bad happens in the middle east, fuel prices surge. The moment demand on corn based ethanol is even discussed, the price on corn related commodities shoots up creating all sorts of problems with supply.

        We haven't had an active invisible hand in the U.S. for decades while we have farmers getting paid for not producing and all manner of nonsense like that.

      • by Hadlock (143607) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:27PM (#31161980) Homepage Journal

        It helps that 90% of Brazil is in sugarcane's growing area, and that when Brazil needs more farmland, they just burn down more forest. The Problem is that the majority of Brazil's soil is actually quite poor and loses it's sustainability as arable soil after 2-3 seasons (which is why they keep burning more and more forest). Unchecked, yes, Brazil will have no problem feeding their population... for now. In 20, 30, 40 years Brazil is going to start running out of forest to burn for more farmland and you will see prices begin to skyrocket when the soil becomes as fertile as north africa's.

        • by budgenator (254554) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @08:52PM (#31162918) Journal

          The Problem is that the majority of Brazil's soil is actually quite poor and loses it's sustainability as arable soil after 2-3 seasons (which is why they keep burning more and more forest).

          Well the answer there is "terra preta do indios", or "black earth of the Indians"

          The black earth areas, about twice the size of Great Britain, possibly as large as France together had supported as many as three million people - more than had been believed to have ever inhabited the entire Western Hemisphere at any one time. They had realized that the black earth was fertile, but had never imagined that the Amazon basin could be so hugely productive. Saving The Planet While Saving The Farm [bidstrup.com]

          Terra petra is fantastically fertile, the Brazilians actually mine this earth for use as potting soil, which is amazing considering most of it's age is measured in millennia not years! Also growing sugarcane doesn't necessarily deplete the soil if the cane field is burned [wikipedia.org] and the char left on the ground, some varieties are even nitrogen fixing. [wikipedia.org]
          Additionally converting biomass to char produces distillates that are useful as fuel [scientificamerican.com] creating a win-win situation.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Trepidity (597)

      The people who were most strongly pushing corn-based ethanol were corn farmers and farm-state politicians, for whom an increase in the price of corn was most definitely not an unintended consequence.

    • And if you would have paid attention, almost no "green-lords" (not sure who falls under that definition, but I'm going to assume the usual suspects of WWF, Sierra Club and other environmental organizations of the same ilk) ever endorsed the use of corn kernels as a source for biofuel. Almost everyone saw that coming. The only ones who uniformly didn't see it coming (or at least didn't care) were the corn producers and their lobbies.

      If you even think for one second that the environmental lobbies somehow have

    • by geekmux (1040042)

      This is particularly good news in the wake of another report that food-based biofuels could cause hunger."

      They JUST figured this out!!!????

      This is the problem with the green lords... they don't think ahead of the unintended consequences!

      I've HATED Corn based ethanol for YEARS... Everyone would point to some country in South America (Brazil?) about how good Ethanol was and the amount of fuel created etc... But that was end of process SUGAR CANE! NOT a major food source!

      Glad someone is finally waking up.

      Speaking of waking up, when have reported "shortages" in other products and industries related to creating fuel have been due to actual supply and demand issues and NOT from greed and corruption?

      We're not paying $2.50/gallon because that's an accurate reflection of how much oil is left on this planet and that's a fair price.

    • by Lehk228 (705449) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:28PM (#31161992) Journal
      don't blame the environmental movement. corn ethanol gas was a republican corporate welfare program for the farm corporations.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by RingDev (879105)

      I would argue just the opposite.

      The best way for 3rd world/developing countries to make the transition to a developed nation is through agriculture.

      The US, with an extremely keen interest on controlling food prices and availability has heavily subsidized farmers across the US. So much so, that it has distorted the global market and significantly limited the introduction of new agricultural markets. By reducing the amount of corn that the US exports, we would actually create a financial advantage for investm

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by hardburn (141468)

      There is a fallacy hidden in there: that world hunger is due to not producing enough food.

      Here's the production of the top four biggest US corn producing states, as of 2006, in thousands of bushels [corn.org]:

      • IA: 2,244,400
      • IL: 2,088,000
      • NE: 1,319,700
      • MN: 1,120,950

      Total: 6,773,050 thousand bushels

      A blog comment [autoblog.com] cites 134,400 calories per bushel (couldn't find a better source for this). So the total calories produce from all the corn above is:

      6,773,050 * 1000 * 134,400 = 910,298,592,000,000 calories

      On a 2000 calorie / d

    • by hey! (33014)

      By that theory you should hate beef too, because it takes a lot more than a pound of corn to create a pound of beef. Furthermore the varieties of corn sold for feed are not normally sold for human consumption.

      So by buying beef you are diverting corn production from human food into animal feed, which reduces the net food available.

      In any case, environmentalists aren't the ones behind corn based ethanol. It's agribusiness.

  • Water (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Has anyone done anything about the huge water requirements of ethanol production? In Chester, South Carolina there have been voices screaming about the proposed ethanol plant. One side is desperate for the jobs, the other side is desperate to protect the Catawba River.

    • Farming of any sourt uses a substantial amount of water, plants grown for Ethanol conversion are no exception.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by slashtivus (1162793)
        I'm pretty sure GP meant "plant" with the meaning of "manufacturing facility". That would be water used in addition to any local farming they are doing.
  • Finally! (Score:2, Funny)

    by Bangmaker (1420175)
    Maybe now I'll have a way to make money off all the weeds in my front yard. I'll finally be able to prove to the neighbors that an unkempt yard is actually worth something.
  • Biofuels (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Chris Lawrence (1733598) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:09PM (#31161782) Homepage

    The main issue with biofuels isn't really food or cost. It's about land use, energy efficiency and sustainability. Brazil is usually given as a great example, but they have only 8 million cars, which use a maximum of 25 percent biofuel, the rest is still gasoline or diesel. And Brazil is one of the countries that is deforesting the fastest in the world. The US has 250 million cars. There's not enough land left in the world to clear to make enough biofuels for that.

    http://www.selfdestructivebastards.com/2010/01/biofuels.html [selfdestru...stards.com]

    • And Brazil is one of the countries that is deforesting the fastest in the world.

      It is my understanding that much of that deforestation is illegal. The land gets cleared for ranching/farming, is exhausted rinse repeat. The Brazilian government has only recently started enforcing the law more strictly. That isn't to say that Ethanol production doesn't play a role, just that other factors weigh in heavily in so far as deforestation is concerned.

      • It's the government that reclassified 200 million hectares, though, as I mention in the article. That's for sucarcane. They are also clearing the rainforest to grow soy. The carbon emissions released from cutting down all these trees can exceed the gains versus fossil fuels by as much as several hundred times, as I quote.

    • Re:Biofuels (Score:5, Informative)

      by Trepidity (597) <.delirium-slashdot. .at. .hackish.org.> on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:23PM (#31161918)

      which use a maximum of 25 percent biofuel

      The standard gasoline blend (i.e. what you get if you buy "normal" gasoline) is 20-25% ethanol in Brazil, but there is also pure ethanol available, and >80% of new cars are able to use either the E25 or E100 fuel. Some details here [wikipedia.org].

      • Okay, fair enough, but these new models were only introduced a few years ago and are a tiny percentage of total national fleet. And my whole point is that if they do switch everything to using pure ethanol, that's just going to make the problem that much worse. Now, imagine trying that in the US with 250 million cars. We'd need to be farming on Mars!

    • Re:Biofuels (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Amorymeltzer (1213818) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:28PM (#31161996)

      When a study [pnas.org] shows that switchgrass produces 540% more renewable than nonrenewable energy consumed, yeah, I'd say it's a little about efficiency.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        That's when you convert farmland. Do the same calculations when you convert natural habitat, such as forest or wetlands, to grow this stuff. Again, you're going to be behind with respect to carbon emissions, probably by an order of magnitude, and you also destroyed more of the natural environment and threatened more species.

        • I don't disagree that the system is shit and that clearly ethanol is really only slightly better than fossil fuels (and even that's arguable). The solution is to get energy elsewhere, but we can't always jump from point A to point H right away. Point B may not be great but if it's an improvement over A then why not? Switchgrass may still suck, but it's a lot better than using corn and half a loaf is better than none.

          • Why not conserve and use less? We can drive less, build more rail, add more transit, build walkable communities, etc. There's lots we can do besides finding new stuff to put in our cars.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by bunratty (545641)
          It would be misguided to cut down forests to grow switchgrass. We should use degraded or barren land or land that switchgrass already grows on [okstate.edu].
    • by AP31R0N (723649)

      Solution:

      Forget the idea that there is a silver bullet for this werewolf (saw wolfman this weekend). We should aim for cars that can run on multiple sources of fuel and have multiple ways of creating that fuel. If it is electricity, use nuclear AND coal AND wind AND geo AND AND AND. If it is Bio, let's use as many sources as we can.

      __
      i find it odd that people think that biofuels could cause a food shortage. There's plenty of food and plenty of land to make more food. We might have to rethink how we use

      • That's true, there's no silver bullet. We need alternative energy, but it can never replace fossil fuels. So we need a combination of conservation, efficiency, alternative energy, and a reduction in consumption. Btw, you're wrong about the cows, read this:

        http://www.selfdestructivebastards.com/2010/01/review-vegetarian-myth.html [selfdestru...stards.com]

        • by AP31R0N (723649)

          So, someone writes a book to make themselves feel better about turning their back on being vegetarian (because she did it wrong) and suddenly the Gulf of Mexico is clear of nitrates. Got it.

          • By nitrates, you're referring to fertilizer, I assume? There is no fertilizer required for cows raised on pasture.

    • Duckweed Perhaps (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Yergle143 (848772)

      I've been following the biofuels industry pretty closely. How about Duckweed? Like algae it does not compete with cropland, it grows fast and unlike algae, it is easy to harvest (just skim off the top rather than concentrating water). Also easier to deal with "weeds" (algae ponds get contaminated by other species and this is hard to control). Duckweed is mostly cellulose and so fits into a feedstream amenable to the fermentation described by the article.

    • by ThiagoHP (910442)

      The main issue with biofuels isn't really food or cost. It's about land use, energy efficiency and sustainability. Brazil is usually given as a great example, but they have only 8 million cars, which use a maximum of 25 percent biofuel, the rest is still gasoline or diesel.

      You've got very wrong information here. Just 8 million cars in Brazil? The article said 8 million cars running on ethanol, not 8 million cars overall. There are almost 28 million cars running now. 25% is the amount of ethanol in the gas sold here. 85% of the current Brazilian car production is comprised of flex-fuel cars, that run on ethanol, gas or any mixture of them.

      And Brazil is one of the countries that is deforesting the fastest in the world.

      That's right, but most of the deforestation is done for wood and to open land to cattle, not agriculture. The Amazon land is not good for ag

      • Yes, sorry, mixed up the number a bit. Still, it's nothing compared to the 250 million in the US. And if all 28 million were switched to ethanol instead of 8 million that would require a lot more biofuel. Then there's China and India which are building cars like crazy.

  • by Benaiah (851593) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:10PM (#31161786)

    Poor market management, lack of planning or agricultural investment and war cause famine, not biofuels. Zimbabwe is host to some of Africa's best ariable land and yet there are thousands who are starving. If the people hadn't let all the farms fall into disrepair after the revolution they would have so much food they could be exporting to other regions.

    There is enough farmland available to grow enough food for all the world. Better prices for biofuel stock might drive up prices short term, but will lead to greater investment and supply long term.

    • by Angst Badger (8636) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:48PM (#31162226)

      Better prices for biofuel stock might drive up prices short term, but will lead to greater investment and supply long term.

      Ah yes, the inevitable claim that magic market pixies will fix everything.

      The fact is that world food production -- never mind potential production -- is already more than adequate to feed everyone. Market economics alone, however, is inadequate to distribute the food. People aren't starving because there isn't enough food, they're starving because they can't afford to buy food. There's no profit to be had in giving food to people who can't pay for it, so they go without.

      I wish free market ideologues would figure out that the market is very good at doing things that are profitable, but not everything worth doing is profitable. The market is amoral and devoid of compassion. That's not necessarily a bad thing by itself, but it becomes so when we surrender every ethical obligation to the test of profitability.

      • by rahvin112 (446269) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @09:11PM (#31163110)

        People aren't starving because they can't buy food, there is plenty of food aid in the world, hell the US spends billions subsidizing US wheat producers so they can export it as US AID, the problem isn't production or even money, starvation is ALWAYS the result of political issues mostly dealing with war. Somalia doesn't starve because of no money, they starve because droughts dry up local production and food can't be imported because it's not safe to do so, not because they can't pay for it. This has been true of almost every famine in the 20th century.

        Don't blame the economy for food shortages because the western governments are more than happy to hand out billions of tons of wheat and other staples just to get rid of it. It's one of the prime benefits of the wheat subsidies in the US is that the federal government buys all the surplus then gives it away to those that need it worldwide. I don't like the subsidy on principle and many nations complain about it (Australia is the biggest complainer) but the mostly unknown fact of the US wheat subsidies is that the excess production is purchased by the Federal government at market rates then given away as US food aid. It costs the US citizen a couple bucks a year and feeds millions. Eliminate of the subsidy would likely lead to less food aid but nothing is certain.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ChrisMaple (607946)

        People aren't starving because there isn't enough food, they're starving because they can't afford to buy food.

        False alternative. Generally, people starve because of tyrants starving them, either deliberately or because allowing the poor to get food is less important to the tyrant than whatever his goals are. Very few people are so incompetent that they couldn't get enough food to survive in the absence of a vile government.

        Food is very cheap in comparison to the value of a person's labor. The number of cap

        • I had a good friend who happened to also be an exiled member of Liberia's parliament. He said the major problem they were having were as follows:

          Due to the currency trade, it costs about 1 million dollars (adjusted) for them to buy a tractor to farm their lands. Is that unreachable? No. Is it ridiculously overpriced? Yes. Do multiple families have to pull together in order to purchase a single tractor? Obviously.

          Once the people have a tractor, and something breaks on it, they have to hire help, a
    • There is enough farmland available to grow enough food for all the world.

      Don't forget to add in that you can probably multiply that by a factor of 10 or more if people were to go on a vegetarian diet. It would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, diseases related to saturated fat and cholesterol, and not least animal suffering.

      Yet for some reason the typical American diet consists of red meat and high fructose corn syrup.

      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        Because that is cheap.

        Check the price of a good meat replacement like quorn vs the the price of ground beef.

  • by BobMcD (601576) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:20PM (#31161882)

    I see speculation on the cost of the fuel, but nothing whatsoever on the performance of it. This makes my suspicion meter go into alarm mode...

    Though, to be fair, ethanol suffers from the same issue.

    Looking at the 2010 Town and Country [fueleconomy.gov] (a similar vehicle to my own Flex-Fuel van), I see these ratings:

    E85 - 17mpg

    Gas - 24mpg

    Adjusted into dollars-per-hundred-miles, using these prices [fuelgaugereport.com], that's something like:

    E85 - $14.13 ($2.403/g)

    Gas - $10.87 ($2.610/g)

    So even though the price at the pump is less, I'd be a fool to run E85 in even a new vehicle of this class.

    Unless this new fuel is better than E85, I can't see how getting it down to a comparable price at the pump is doing us any favors. Now if it is somehow better than E85, then that would be some good news. Alas, the story is mute on this topic.

    • by Qzukk (229616)

      Unless this new fuel is better than E85, I can't see how getting it down to a comparable price at the pump is doing us any favors. Now if it is somehow better than E85, then that would be some good news. Alas, the story is mute on this topic.

      It's ethanol, and will have all the same properties as everyone else's ethanol. Perhaps they'll be able to get the price low enough to make up for the difference in energy density once they start using plants with a better yield than corn?

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Krannert IT (1675504)

      I read an interesting article about how ethanol really can be similar to gas, parituclar in an engine designed for gas. http://www.radford.edu/wkovarik/papers/fuel.htm [radford.edu]

      It seems as if ethanol is actually a good fuel when an engine is tuned properly. It is used for racing already, most motorsports use pure ethanol as it has a higher octane rating which allows the production of more horsepower. If you tune and gear an engine properly you should easily be able to get similar mileage. The problem with flex fue

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by gmhowell (26755)

        The other reason to use ethanol is that, IIRC, it has less energy than octane. Ethanol is used in high power (racing) applications for a few reasons, including some related to this. In addition to pre-ignition resistance, the cooler temperature prevents the head and exhaust valves from heating up (throwing off tight clearances as well as increasing pre-igition), is less dangerous in the event of a catastrophe (although the flames are harder to see), blocks and stress parts can be lightened considerably (no

    • by FishTankX (1539069) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @08:01PM (#31162386)
      usually to efficently leverage ethanol you have to have an engine designed for it. You can utilize VASTLY higher compression ratios with ethanol, because of it's massive antiknock rating. So you use a turbo, superhigh compression ratios, and boom, ethanol comes within 10-20% as efficent as gasoline. This allows you to use a smaller engine, and hence less pumping losses, opening the door for ethanol engines to surpass gasoline engines in MPG efficency. How about using ethanol in combination with gasoline to drastically boost normal fuel efficency by achieving higher compression ratios than normally possible? http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2006/engine.html [mit.edu] This MIT engine uses ethanol injection to keep an engine from knocking, delivering significantly higher compression ratios. About 1 gallon of ethanol to 20 galons of gasoline used. And the result? Engine output per liter jumped nearly 2x. Thus, overall fuel efficency gains were in the neighborhood of 20-30%, and I doubt it'd be that much more expensive than a hybrid system. Combined with a hybrid system, this could allow stratospheric mileages easily toppling diesel in 1st place. I think so far this is only on simulations, but if it were to break into the market, Ethanol could find it's home not only as an alternative fuel, but more importantly boosting the efficency of all of the other straight gasoline engines out there. All it takes is customized design for the fuel application.
    • Luckily, biofuels aren't subject to the monopolistic bullshit of OPEC, so with innovation, open markets, and competition, price should theoretically go down (until hitting whatever the floor is, which is hopefully lower than gasoline).

      I will really enjoy watching these oil rich assholes seal their own fate. They've had decades to develop actual functioning economies, but instead they're all rich on the fat revenues oil generates and have done nothing to diversify their economies away from oil (with the
  • Maybe the solution is to reduce the number of cars instead of trying to figure out a way to power them (in an unsustainable manner)
    • by FooAtWFU (699187)
      Getting people out of their cars more is a multidecadal process. The short-term price elasticity of demand for gasoline is very low.
      • by Locklin (1074657)

        Increase the cost of fuel to represent diving's true cost (instead of subsidising private vehicle ownership with property and other taxes), and you will see a sudden and sharp decline in miles driven. Sure people will wine, but sometimes you just need to rip off the band-aid.

        • by FooAtWFU (699187)

          Increase the cost of fuel to represent diving's true cost ... and you will see a sudden and sharp decline in miles driven.

          No you won't. A 10% rise in the price of gas only means something like a 1% reduction in traffic the short run (and about 3% in the long run). Shuffling the taxes is fine, but that's not a "sudden and sharp decline" or going to deliver you a "fewer cars on the road" agenda very quickly.

    • by Cryacin (657549)
      On thy way brother Eli, and take ye horse and cart with ye!
    • The market cannot answer your question.

      Did you ask, "How can I increase short term profit for my shareholder?"

      If you asked a different question, please try again.

  • by jbezorg (1263978) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:27PM (#31161986)

    What about algae farms on the ocean? Seaweed farms? Who says the biomass has to come from corn or any other land based crop? The farms could be right next to the data centers [slashdot.org].

    • by Rei (128717)

      Do you want to harvest existing algae -- the basis of most marine food chains -- or fertilize to create new algae, with possible downstream consequences?

      If you think runoff from land-based farms is bad... the ocean is *all* runoff. If farming the oceans is done, it needs to be approached very slowly and carefully.

  • This a positive step in the right direction. I always felt that by George W. Bush touting bio fuels through corn was exceedingly stupid and shortsighted - even for him. This drove the price of cereal up as we should all recall in and around 2007 when cereal suddenly sky rocketed. A cellulose process makes far more sense, from an economic and an environmental standpoint because waste products can be used. After all, who eats the corn cob? This is a step towards energy independence but still does not full
    • by Dynedain (141758)

      After all, who eats the corn cob?

      Livestock. In fact, the raise in corn prices caused a spike in beef, poultry and pork prices, and also forced many dairies out of business.

  • by FatdogHaiku (978357) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @08:01PM (#31162384)
    Let me know when they can make fuel from cellulite, that should solve America's dependence on foreign fuel supplies for quite some time.... I'll do my part, converting potatoes into fuel one delicious french fry at a time

    Try New Texaco Green, It's People!
  • I bet if you took any field currently used to grow corn for ethanol, you could find another crop to grow on that field for ethanol use such that it produced more energy at the other end (i.e. after you subtract the amount of energy required in the production process).

    Switchgrass and other types of biofuel are being suppressed because the big bio-tech firms like Monsanto dont profit from those (seed sales, chemical sales etc)

    Although to be fair I have no idea how hard it is to take factories that turn corn i

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