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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 plover ( 150551 ) * on Sunday July 15, 2007 @06:13PM (#19870933) Homepage Journal
    This isn't the first time I've read that corn yields 1.3 units of energy out for each unit put in (or some factor other than 1.3) But where does this number come from? And really, how far back does it go -- gas in the farmer's 4x4 inspecting his fields? Energy used to produce the fertilizer? The energy to produce the food the farmer ate?

    I'd like to know because it's so hard to compare with oil at that level. It's much easier for a consumer to simply look at the price on the pump. But that only tells us what the market is willing to bear (what the fuel is worth), not the true costs of production.

  • by aichpvee ( 631243 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @06:17PM (#19870969) Journal
    It isn't about monetary value at all anyway. It's about corn being a poor source of material for producing ethanol because it is low in sugar. This type of ethanol works great in places like Brazil because they make it out of sugar cane.

    If it were just about the monetary cost of things even corn ethanol wins over oil, which would be $13/gallon or more if we started charging the oil companies for our military services.
  • Skeptical (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bombula ( 670389 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @06:26PM (#19871049)
    You have to be careful of these kinds of companies' claims. I remember getting interested in a biodiesel-from-algae-grown-vertically project run by an outfit called Global Green Solutions (www.globalgreensolutions.com). They claimed to be able to get 150,000 gallons per acre per year, which is 1000 times the output of oil palm and other biodiesel crops - and 15 times more than other folks' projections for regular algae ponds. It all sounded great, until the basic calculations showed that their 'projections' would have meant converting 85% of the TOTAL solar energy directly into stored energy in the fuel - a physical impossibility. I called their bluff, and they just shrugged and said, "our 100-million-gallon-per-year plant will be open next year and then you'll see." Well, it's now next year, and you can imagine what happened. Nothing.
  • by Vader82 ( 234990 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @06:46PM (#19871175) Homepage
    I don't mean to be contrary, but spewing carbon into the air isn't a bad thing. Its introducing EXTRA carbon into the air that hasn't been there for millions of years thats a bad thing. If we stopped pumping oil out of the ground today and instead used biofuels of whatever variety you like (biodiesel, ethanol, etc) that would be enough. The carbon in the air would get sucked up by plants as they grow, we would harvest said plants for the energy they have locked up, and we would use it.

    The carbon-hydrogen class of molecules have excellent energy storage properties, from methanol (CH4) up to octane (C8H18). Some have higher energy density, cleaner burning, etc. Humanity has around 100 years of investment into the internal combustion engine and it would be wise not to do away with that until we've found something SIGNIFICANTLY better. And by significantly, I don't mean 20-30%. I'm thinking more like 100-300% before it really looks worthwhile.

    Anyhow, if we stopped introducing EXTRA carbon back into the surface carbon cycle thats been sitting locked away for the last 10M+ years that'll be enough to do one of two things: stop any potential increase in surface temperatures OR show us that there is a different cause than CO2 causing warming.
  • by slughead ( 592713 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:48PM (#19871579) Homepage Journal
    But that only tells us what the market is willing to bear (what the fuel is worth), not the true costs of production.

    Actually, it's especially easy with gas. The 'demand curve' is so steep, usually quantity demanded remains very constant regardless of price (at least, in the short term, obviously).

    This is noted by gas taxes: the burden is almost entirely bore by the consumer, so an extra 18 cent tax adds nearly 18 cents to the price of gas because the companies know we'll pay it. In addition from gas taxes end up being nearly proportional to the rate.

    Compare this with something like cigarettes taxes: The companies actually reduce the price of cigarettes and end up paying (I'm guessing here, from my days as a smoker) roughly half of the tax. This is directly related to the demand curve and the nature of the market. In addition, revenues are not nearly proportional to the tax rate increase because people generally do buy many fewer cigarettes when they cost more. The companies have to balance the tax burden with their loss of revenues, and they hire really smart guys to do this.

    By the way, the emboldened words in this post are there to indicate trends and averages.
  • by ChrisMaple ( 607946 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:52PM (#19871603)
    At some point you have to say "It's not valid to count this as a cost." Why not charge military expenses to the existence of religious insanity? Why not add the cost of building roads to the price of oil? How about the cost of educating future oil company employees, or feeding them until they join the oil company?
  • by edwardpickman ( 965122 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @07:59PM (#19871651)
    You make a hell of a point. I say we fund the war through gas taxes. You want to end this war tomorrow add a $10 tax on gas to cover the cost of fighting for it. Even Congress might be on the people's side when it costs them $600 to top off their Hummer.
  • by gregorio ( 520049 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @08:22PM (#19871855)

    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
    In theory, the place where you are growing corn or sugar cane was already occupied by CO2-absorbing plants, either natural ones or food-destined ones. If we remove natural forest to plant sugar cane / corn, it's even worse: we're destroying stuff just to get fuel, instead of just taking it from the underground.

    This is why ethanol and biodiesel fuels are the darlings of many environmentalists.
    No, ethanol and biodiesel are the darlings of a group of environmentalists whose cause is just about trying to destroy Exxon, Shell and others (*). They don't give a crap about the environment and they would gladly defend taking out a lot of the amazon forest just to grow sugar cane and replace those big corporations. They are the same ones who complain about global warming while they protest against nuclear (emission free) and try to convince us that replacing dinodiesel for biodiesel is good, while it's just about trading one CO2 source for another one.

    (*) Why? Because back in the 70's, when global warming was not a hot agenda yet and they were "fighting" oil spills, made by the big oil companies, both sides got excessive and people died, got bankrupt, jailed, fired, etc. That's their motivation: plain old revenge. They spent decades braiwashing the alternative youth against those companies and now their political system reached the self-sustaining state.
  • by r_jensen11 ( 598210 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @08:39PM (#19871959)
    I know that the existing ethanol production systems have enormous tolls on our groundwater supply. How does using cellulose compare? Remember: there is more to the environment than just emissions. One of the last things we need is the Great Plains to become The Great Dunes
  • First? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @08:58PM (#19872075)
    Hang on - I'm way over in Australia and more than six months ago I heard a radio interview with people running an ethanol plant on cellulose in the USA (North Dakota or Montana - not sure which state). Australia's ABC science show ran the story but the podcast and transcripts have most likely gone by now.
  • by heroine ( 1220 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @09:09PM (#19872143) Homepage
    The fuel cell laptop was supposed to appear a few years ago. Still waiting for that one. Coal liquefaction was supposed to appear a few years ago. Still waiting for that one. Now a startup is promoting cellulose liquefaction.
  • Re:Skeptical (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Smidge204 ( 605297 ) on Sunday July 15, 2007 @09:16PM (#19872197) Journal
    I think your math was off...

    1 gallon of BioDiesel is about 130,000 BTUs or energy. 150,000 gallons is thus 19,500,000,000 BTUs.

    Realistically, sunlight energy at ground level is about 100 watts per square foot, plus or minus. At 43,560 sq.ft. per acre, that's 4,356,000 watts per acre of raw sunlight.

    Assuming a cautious 5 hours a day, every day, of sunlight at that wattage, a year will net you 4356000 watts * 365 days * 5 hours/day * 3600 sec/hour = 28,618,920,000,000 total incident joules of sunlight.

    19.50E9 is only about 0.07% of 26.62E12

    Of course, you can't realistically use 100% of an acre for collection area, you won't get 5 hours of perfect sunlight every single day of the year, you won't get 100% absorption of the sun's energy, or 100% conversion to algae oil, or 100% BioDiesel conversion efficiency, and there's probably some kind of mixing/circulating thing going on so no single algae cell gets a full day's exposure anyway... but 0.07% theoretical is way, way off your 85% figure. I'm curious as to how you arrived at that, actually...
  • by RGRistroph ( 86936 ) <rgristroph@gmail.com> on Sunday July 15, 2007 @09:33PM (#19872281) Homepage
    I have been doing some armchair research [freeshell.org] on gasification for a while. My original goal was to make a gas synthesizer that would be attached to a vehicle or small generator, as people did in some places during WWII. I have become less enthusiastic about that project, as I have come to realize it will be difficult to make any device that doesn't have the potential to kill you with carbon monoxide.

    If you are interested in the chemistry and thermodynamics behind gasification you should obtain and read "Synthetic Fuels" by Ronald F. Probstein and R. Edwin Hicks, published by Dover (1982, 1990, 2006), ISBN 0-486-44977-7. The first portion of it deals with gasification. The later parts of it deal with taking the "synthesis gas" and forming it into bigger molecules of methane or even liquid fuels. The amount of energy consumed, and the heats and presures and sometimes expensive catalysts, are fairly depressing to the backyard hobbiest.

    However, it might be possible to build something that gasifies waste into hydorgen and steam and carbon dioxide, which would then be burned in an engine. A recent slashdot article [slashdot.org] about a gasification procedure that uses microwaves [newscientist.com] seems hopeful, because if you gasified in the presense of steam with no oxygen you might have less carbon monoxide. Usually, oxygen has to be present because a portion of the waste is burnt in the same chamber as the gasification occurs, to provide the heat needed.

    Of course, playing around with a microwave magnetron has it's own dangers as well.

    I believe it is possible to build an apparatus about the size of two shipping pallets and 6 feet high that would take in household garbage and yard waste and produce a considerable amount of electricity. Whether it would be economical, except in places where grid electricity is not available, is a different matter. Having it produce a liquid fuel suitable for storage and use in an internal combustion engine seems like a big leap, but that's what I would like to aim for.

  • by falconwolf ( 725481 ) <falconsoaring_2000NO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Sunday July 15, 2007 @10:00PM (#19872409)

    If we stopped keeping sugar prices artificially high, and especially if we let Cuban sugar in, it would be amazingly cost-effective.)

    Cuban sugarcane is one reason the trade embargo hasn't been ended long ago, and why Brazilian sugarcane isn't being imported into the US. US sugarecane farmers, centered around Lake Okeechobee, FL, hold a lot of political clout.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 16, 2007 @12:13AM (#19873137)
    Ethanol is very dirty to burn.
    It's bad news if we believe that, because ethanol's set of pollutants is different than gasoline's set, ethanol is cleaner than gasoline somehow.
  • by sr180 ( 700526 ) on Monday July 16, 2007 @12:54AM (#19873339) Journal
    Many Australians were Irate that we were walked over by the US in our recent free trade agreement. The US decided that free trade doesn't apply to Sugar or Beef, two of Australia's major exports.
  • by P3NIS_CLEAVER ( 860022 ) on Monday July 16, 2007 @01:32AM (#19873503) Journal
    Funnier still is that if they allowed people to grow this stuff for industrial purposes the pollen would ruin everything that people were growing for drugs.
  • by indifferent children ( 842621 ) on Monday July 16, 2007 @08:32AM (#19875041)
    You don't to grasp this "free trade" concept. *You* are *free* to buy *our* government-subsidised products. *We* are under no obligation to accept *yours*.

    Next week's lesson: "Globalization, the new mercantilism".

  • by indifferent children ( 842621 ) on Monday July 16, 2007 @08:42AM (#19875089)
    Oil supply is essential to a modern military

    Which is why a true conservative, concerned more about America's security than about corporate profits, would oppose drilling in the ANWR. The ANWR is our true strategic reserve, and will keep us from being out-gunned by the last country to have any oil.

    Even putting drilling equipment in place would threaten our national security, since some pissant will turn the tap to solve a "short term" crisis (like his own electability). After peak oil is undeniable, and the value of the ANWR as a strategic resource is univerally recognized, we can put the infrastructure in place.

  • One tonne of dry biomass on an energy basis is about the same as two barrels of oil. Another pithy fact is that one needs to be able to brew beer at $2.50 per keg in order to compete on an energy basis with gasoline. The last factoid is easy to see. A keg is about 60 liters and at 5% this is three (3) liters of ethanol. Ethanol has about 2/3 the energy of gasoline.

    We seldom see these issues described in a compact form. I keep seeing terms like "Ethanol is an oxygenated fuel". In fact it is a partially oxidized fuel which is why it carries considerably less energy than say gasoline or diesel. Liquid motor fuels are for the most part Alkanes and have a chemical formula of CnH(2n+2). Ethanol is an alcohol which has an OH tacked on to an alkane. Ethanol is C2H5OH which is a partially oxidized propane. The oxygen makes it liquid hence relatively safe and easy to transport. Methanol is partially oxidized methane: CH3OH.

    Hence it is immediately clear that if we had a large supply of propane then the shortest chemical route to produce ethanol would be from the gas - not from sugar or starch and certainly not from cellulose or other plant matter... except for one thing. The biologic source is renewable. The geological source as best we know is not renewable.

    Now the thing that is not emphasized in these discussions is that every gallon of ethanol produced from starch will come out of someone's mouth. It might not be your mouth or mine - it might be a pig's mouth or a chicken's mouth but it will be someone or something currently in the food chain who will have to give up their source of food in order for us to feed our cars.

    This is obvious. We do not have a HUGE amount of excess agricultural capacity and we also do not have huge piles of unused grain hanging around. Hence it is clear that we eat what we produce and there is little long term surplus.

    The world consumes about 82-84 million barrels of oil per day. This can be found in the BP statistical oil review - there are other sources but this is a very good one. North America consumes about 24-25 million barrels per day if you include Canada.

    I share the opinions of those who say we are probably at the world peak of oil production. We will probably stay near this peak for a couple years more. On the news two days ago was an EIA forecast that world consumption is forecast to grow by another 2 million barrels per day next year and that OPEC is expected to step up to the plate. I laughed. I expect that OPEC production will be flat and that the forecast demand will simply drive the price up until the demand is destroyed. Mathew Simmons says it could take over $300 per barrel to destroy the demand. I don't know if I believe what Simmons says will happen before 2015 but I do have a great deal of respect for him. He could very well be right.

    Now the issue of cellulostic ethanol. Probably this makes some sense. But you still need to collect and transport a tonne of organic matter to the ethanol plant in order to create the equivalent on an energy bassis of two (2) barrels of oil. Then this material has to be converted at 100% efficiency into ethanol and at zero (0%) cost.... and it has to be 100% convertable into ethanol.

    Other alternatives are coal liquifaction and coal gasification to create a hydrogen source for the development of synthetic crude.

    As I see it - the ONLY way that make sense is synthetic crude.

    We are doing this in Alberta at the tar sands. We are expecting to ramp up production into the 3.3 million barrel per day level by 2015. The problem is that by 2015 if world oil peaks between now and 2010 for instance then we can lose conventional production at a rate of 10% per year on a production base of say 84 million barrels at peak - and this compounds annually... it is an exponential function.

    Without nuclear power to create a source of hydrogen we either have to discard literally 1/2 of the carbon we mine or we have to use a chemical process such as Fis

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