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Power Science

America's First Cellulosic Ethanol Plant 522

hankmt writes "The state of Georgia just granted Range Fuels a permit to create the first cellulosic ethanol plant in America. Cellulosic ethanol produces ethanol from cellulose, which all plants have, instead of from sugar, which is only abundant in food crops. Corn ethanol only produces 1.3 units of energy for every unit of energy that goes into growing the crop and converting the sugar to ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol can produce as much as 16 units of energy for every one unit of energy put into the process. The new plant will be online in 2008 and aims to produce 100 million gallons of ethanol a year."
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America's First Cellulosic Ethanol Plant

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  • by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @06:21PM (#19871003)
    It's even worse than that, since methanol production is heavily subsidized by the Federal Government.
  • by gregor-e ( 136142 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @06:25PM (#19871041) Homepage
    DOE has ponied up $385 million [] to six different cellulosic ethanol plants, one of which is Range Fuels.
  • by evanbd ( 210358 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @06:26PM (#19871045)

    Comparing prices also gets subsidies (especially corn subsidies, but also renewable energy subsidies) involved.

    Those numbers certainly ought to include the energy content of the fertilizer -- it's decidedly non-trivial in comparison to the output energy, though I don't have a reference handy so I won't go quoting numbers. Most fertilizer is ammonium nitrate (or other nitrates), which is made from atmospheric N2 + H2 from fossil fuel sources (mostly natural gas, but also oil and coal to some extent). The ammonia is oxidized to nitric acid and reacted with more ammonia to form fertilizer AN, or used directly as anhydrous ammonia.

  • Re:Great! (Score:3, Informative)

    by ElBeano ( 570883 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @06:37PM (#19871127)
    Your understanding is a little twisted. It isn't "producing C02", it's shortening the carbon cycle to the point where we are using plants that have grown as recently as a few months ago for energy. The carbon in the plants was removed from the atmosphere by said plants. There may be no net reduction in C02 in the atmosphere over time by using cellosic alchohol, but burning fossil fuels presents a dramatically different situation. The carbon in fossil fuels has been buried for millions of years. This process took a very long time. Burning the fuels releases the carbon sequestered over a period of millions of years in a matter of decades.
  • In theory, the CO2 that is released from burning the ethanol is reabsorbed by the plants used to make the ethanol, so there's no net CO2. This is why ethanol and biodiesel fuels are the darlings of many environmentalists. In practice, there are other CO2 costs involved, such as (probably) fertilizer, transportation costs, conversion costs, etc. (By "costs" here, I'm referring to CO2 output and nothing else. Of course, there are other costs involved as well.)

    Still, it's probably much better than burning fossil-fuels with respect to CO2 output.

  • by wolfgang_spangler ( 40539 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:02PM (#19871275) Homepage

    People were just decrying the permits issued to BP for a plant to crack Canadian oil.
    Actually that wasn't what people were upset about. People were upset that the state of Indiana gave BP a waiver to dump extra amounts of ammonia and heavy metal sludge into Lake Michigan.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:03PM (#19871283)
    The difference, fellow Anonymous Coward, is that there is no net carbon gain on ethanol production (assuming the plant isn't being powered by coal, fuel-oil, natural gas, etc). Whether or not there are other emissions like oil and coal have, NOx, NH3, etc, this plant doesn't contribute CO2.
  • Re:Free energy (Score:4, Informative)

    by Terminal Saint ( 668751 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:08PM (#19871317)
    That's for one unit of energy WE use to produce it; all that solar power that goes into it is what we're getting out.
  • No, you idiot. (Score:4, Informative)

    by MrTrick ( 673182 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:24PM (#19871411) Homepage
    X amount of raw cellulosic product in, plus 1 unit of energy to power the process.
    The output is enough ethanol to generate 16 units of energy.

    In practice, these plants often loop part of the output back to power itself, so the process is simplified to:
    X of raw cellulosic product in, 15 units of energy out.

    Which is pretty cool.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:27PM (#19871435)
    The DoE publications and others are all fairly consistent at a factor of 1.2 to 1.4. High sugar sources, like sugar cane, are over 3:1 ratio. High oil-content plant products like soybeans are also over 3:1. That is the "direct" energy cost. Includes the energy for the tractor but not energy for the farmer. The tractor fuel really is negligible... the real cost is in the heating of the water and lost water needed to make ETOH from corn. Sort of like using an electric raxor uses less energy than a plain manual safety razor because of the hot water used. But petroleum based fossil fuels are well over 50:1, and can be 100:1. That's right, 50 to 100 units of energy released for each unit of energy needed to produce it. That drops by about 15% when you include cracking it to gasoline, but you are still at 50:1 even on a bad day. Now do you see why oil it is so widely used?
  • by mdsolar ( 1045926 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:30PM (#19871465) Homepage Journal
    This is the ratio of fossil energy put in to energy out. Most of the fossil energy input for corn comes from nitrogen fertilizer which is produced using natural gas (though it does not need to be .html []) and fuel used for harvesting and planting. Some distilleries also use natural gas. Forest waste products to be used here don't have any fertilizer inputs and much of the fuel used for harvesting would have been used anyway. Brazil is achieving some very impressive values for this ratio in its biodiesel production: []. On the energy out side, everything is really stored solar power.
    Get solar power with no installation cost: -selling-solar.html []
  • by mdsolar ( 1045926 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:35PM (#19871513) Homepage Journal
    When you use forest waste products there is no fertilizer involved so this really reduces the amount of fossil fuel input. They do need quite a lot of heat input for their process so they may be less efficent than enzyme processes, but they are ready to go into production now.
    Solar power without the permit hassles: -selling-solar.html []
  • by mdsolar ( 1045926 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:47PM (#19871577) Homepage Journal
    These guys are going for ethanol though they also get some methanol, propanol and butanol. Look at step 2b here: []
    Solar power with no maintenance fee: -selling-solar.html []
  • by Gibbs-Duhem ( 1058152 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:52PM (#19871601)

    It comes from a selection of five papers from the late nineties which did the calculation in a number of ways. Generally, they attempt to account for the entire manufacturing process, from energy in oil used in fertilizers to fuel for farm equipment, to transport of the ethanol or corn, to the refineries that distill out all the water. I do not believe they go so far as to account for feeding the farmer, but I honestly suspect that is a very minor correction, as much as I like farmers.

    However, there is a fairly well known outlier which claimed to do a better job of accounting for processing costs. Pimentel and Patzek attributed what they claim are more accurate inputs to the agriculture, transport, industrial, and distribution components of the manufacturing process, giving the also oft-quoted value of around 25% energy *loss*. Ordinarily, people would probably dismiss that one given the seemingly overwhelming amount of contrary evidence, but Pimentel and Patzek are very well-respected scientists. It's difficult for me, as an energy researcher, to know who to believe. I suspect it's nigh impossible for people who only study this passingly.

    Personally, I'm inclined to believe that even if Pimentel et al are wrong, 1.3 is just way, way too low to be reasonable. Improvements to technology (as this plant represents), are the only way that ethanol can ever be practical. We'll see soon enough if it's as good as they claim. .toocostly.ssl.html [] has a summary of the debate.

  • by Suicyco ( 88284 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:56PM (#19871637) Homepage
    See here: []

    Hemp is one of the top producers of biomass per acre. It is much better than corn and can be grown on fallow fields as well. And you can't even smoke this type of hemp, it grows 10-20 feet high and is all stalk with a clump of seeds at the top. Of course, nobody ever smoked this form of hemp, even when it was one of the primary cash crops of the south prior to the 1930's.

    Too bad, since hemp is evil. It makes you rape white wimin: []
  • Re:Carbon neutral? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Ari1413 ( 872981 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:57PM (#19871641)
    Actually, plants get carbon from the air, and they do it for "free" (solar energy by way of photosynthesis). It's nitrogen that's the issue. It takes energy (and quite a bit of it) to reduce atmospheric nitrogen to a form that plants can use for protein. Fertilizer supplies nitrogen. That's where the carbon "footprint" comes in, since industrial fertilizer production burns carbon (or some alternative energy, of course).
  • Re:Carbon neutral? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 15, 2007 @08:00PM (#19871661)
    Plants absorb CO2 from the air. Where were you during high school biology?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 15, 2007 @08:07PM (#19871725)

    Compared to other North American crops, such as corn or switchgrass, HEMP contains the highest percentage of cellulose [].

    This is yet another reason to re-legalize industrial hemp in the US.

    This great annual crop, grows in even the most arid lands, virtually anywhere in North America, without the use of pesticides, or herbicides, and can be baled like hay for easy transportation. It can be used to make:

    Why is this crop illegal in the USA? Oh yeah, because politicians and others confuse it with marijuana, and demigog it to death. HEMP is NOT marijuana! You cannot get high from smoking hemp!

  • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @08:49PM (#19872023) Journal
    The continents I was taught were:
    • Eurasia.
    • Africa.
    • North America.
    • South America.
    • Australasia.
    • Antarctica
    According to Wikipedia, Australasia is actually a part of Oceania, although the only time I've seen the term Oceania used before has been in 1984, to refer to the the Americas, the British Isles, Australia, and a few other scattered bits of the world.

    In the linked map, this is the '6 continent' model, although their map calls the south-eastern continent 'Australia,' rather than 'Australasia,' which can't make inhabitants of New Zealand very happy...

  • by daeg ( 828071 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @08:51PM (#19872045)
    Hemp, while good, isn't the best. It'd work in most climates, at least, and is certainly better than a lot of choices for yield per acre.

    Switchgrass is one of the better ones. It grows everywhere and is very disease, drought, etc resistant. You can't kill the shit even if you try and it requires very little, if any, maintenance. For longer term crops, depending on the environment type, poppler and willow are good choices. The nice thing about fast-growing trees is that if your refining process gets tied up, your crop won't die. You can store the wood for a long time or just leave the trees planted. You don't have that option with switchgrass or hemp -- you can't store the stuff or it will start decomposing.

    Besides, as with any type of farming, the best yields will come from a variety of crops rotated to preserve the land as much as possible.
  • Re:Carbon neutral? (Score:5, Informative)

    by jeff4747 ( 256583 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @09:10PM (#19872157)

    Plants mine soil for carbon.

    There's your problem, right there.

    Plants mine the air for carbon. They literally suck up CO2 in their leaves and use sunlight to break it into C and O2. (Technically the 02 from CO2 is turned into glucose, and two Os from H2O are released as O2)

    Plants mine soil for other minerals they need to grow, mostly nitrogen to make amino acids.

    Petroleum-based fertilizers are primarily Ammonium nitrate, which contains no carbon at all. In fact, carbon would be an undesirable contaminant in fertilizer.

    In addition, there are bacteria that are able to get nitrogen out of the atmosphere, and several species of plants incorporate these bacteria in a symbiotic relationship. If you use the bacteria, you don't need nearly as much fertilizer.

  • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @09:21PM (#19872231)

    Nuclear power is not "emission free". Sure, it produces no CO2

    It's not that either. People forget that it's made out of rocks and not magic beans. The enrichment process involves heating Uranium up until it becomes a gas - which requires a bit of fossil fuels but overall wiht the best Uranium ore the CO2 emissions will end up less than a third of what you would get if you burnt natural gas to make electricity.

    The biggest barrier to it's use if of course that it is an expensive way to boil water and only at huge sizes do you get any sort of decent return - thermal power often gives you more than twice the befefit for twice the size. Having to plan a decade ahead and have a vast amount of money for the capital cost of building the things is a bigger barrier to nuclear power than any conspiracy theory blaming things on hippies.

    An almost total lack of R&D effort doesn't help either - what you could buy today from Westinghouse to get built in a decade is effectively a 1950's white elephant painted green. South African nuclear technology is far in advance of that (pebble bed) and Indian technology may be deliver some of the promises (accelerated thorium). There are other reasons for nuclear reactors and that's why We have seen a few small ones built, notably in North Korea, Iran, Indonesia and Egypt. Want some Plutonium for a weapons program? CANDU!

    Going back to the poster a few posts above - lay off the hippy conspiracy theories - they really do not have the power you credit them with and do not have some highly organised revenge plan.

  • Re:Skeptical (Score:5, Informative)

    by Bombula ( 670389 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @09:27PM (#19872249)
    Here's another calculation:

    The energy contained in 150,000 gallons of diesel @85% = 150,000 gallons/year x 133,000 BTU/gallon x .000293 kwh/BTU = 5.8MMkwh/year acre. The energy falling on one acre of land = 5kwh/m2 - day x 365 days/year x 4046 m2/acre = 7.4MM kwh/year - acre. 5.8/7.4 = .78. That is about 78% efficiency in converting sunlight to liquid energy.

    I incorrectly remembered the 85% figure, which is a different measure, but it's still in the same neighborhood.

    Looking at your calculation, you seem to have forgotten to convert BTUs into joules. 1 BTU = 1,054 joules. That put your calculation out by a factor of 1000. You got 0.07%, when the actual number is closer to 70%.

    I wish you were right though.

  • by fredklein ( 532096 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @09:48PM (#19872355)
    you don't just push a seed in the ground and it grows you know,

    Um, yes it does. Beleive it or not, plants were around long before fertilizer ('ammonia nitrate') was created.

    Now, if you are talking about 'forcing' the plants to grow faster and bigger, then YES, farmers can and do use a lot of fertilizer. But fertilizer can be made of other things than ammonia nitrate. Imagine fields fetrilized by human (and other animal) waste. Since it's not a food crop, there is no health issue.
  • How would hemp do? (Score:5, Informative)

    by falconwolf ( 725481 ) <falconsoaring_20 ... minus cat> on Sunday July 15, 2007 @10:30PM (#19872583)

    In 1892 Rudolph Diesel designed his engine and ran it on vegetable oil. He used hemp oil amoung them. Then in the 1930s Henry Ford built a vehicle not only using hemp [] in the construction but was fueled with alcohol made from hemp, hemp he grew on his Iron Mountain Estate. Hemp was found to be a good source for fuel. Also in the 1930s MIT did a study showing an acre of hemp produced more paper than an acre of forest. Eventually some who felt threatened by hemp's industrial uses pushed to make it illegal and via the 1937 Marijuna Tax Act [] and between them they were successful.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @11:50PM (#19872991) Homepage

    OK, first we get past the blogodreck from some site that wants traffic, and look at the Range Fuels site. []

    This is funded by Kosla Ventures, which is Vinod Kosla's venture capital fund. That's a good sign; he has a decent track record as a VC. (He was one of the founders of Sun, but he later invested in Excite.) Anyway, they're not looking for money; they've got that.

    People have been working on cellulostic ethanol for a while. It's not that hard to do; it's hard to do cost-effectively. Here's an overview of the known approaches. [] Range Fuels uses a heat-driven process, which of course takes energy to run, but is standard chemical engineering. There's other R&D underway to develop a bioengineered enzyme that will digest cellulose at commercially feasible rates. Such enzymes have been created, but they're too slow and making the enzymes costs too much. Work continues.

    Anyway, this doesn't look like the big cellulostic ethanol breakthrough. But it's progress.

  • by calcapt ( 975466 ) on Monday July 16, 2007 @12:45AM (#19873295)
    Sugar cane isn't just a good source because it has a higher sugar content; the bagasse that's left over from pressing the cane is burnt to fuel part of the ethanol conversion process, making it more energy efficient than corn. The result is a 8:1 energy ratio. 8 units out, 1 unit in.
  • by dman123 ( 115218 ) on Monday July 16, 2007 @01:13AM (#19873421) Journal
    Pimentel and Patzek are well respected? Maybe in the petro and bug worlds, but in the biofuel world? Hardly. They are well known for self-referential justification of their "facts" and citing old data (again, usually their own papers from long ago). All you have to do is read this paper nol/08_22_01b.htm [] by Michael Graboski: Research Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, Colorado School of Mines. And that's a kind review of Pimentel/Patzek. It's #1 if you google 'Pimentel ethanol'

    Keep googling and you can find more about their dislike of biodiesel and any other non-biomass biofuel. Like this one en/20050721_pimentel_response.pdf [] about biodiesel. Is the source of the rebuttal (the National Biodiesel Board) biased? Read the reasoning behind the disagreement with Pimentel/Patzek and make up your own mind.
  • by MadMidnightBomber ( 894759 ) on Monday July 16, 2007 @04:40AM (#19874225)
    You need to improve your google-fu. Second hit for "celluose to sugar". []

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