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Cellulosic Biofuel Finally Ready For the Road 355

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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  • Water (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:07PM (#31161762)

    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.

  • 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. []

  • by ThiagoHP ( 910442 ) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:17PM (#31161846)
    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 anti-free-market in the land that people love to quote the "invisible hand of the market" as the solution to almost anything. Go figure.
  • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:24PM (#31161938) Homepage

    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 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 [].

  • Re:Biofuels (Score:5, Interesting)

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

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

  • by RingDev ( 879105 ) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:48PM (#31162234) Homepage Journal

    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 investment in agriculture in 3rd world countries. Thus resulting in no net change in world wide food availability.

    Most of the articles I've seen that claim corn based ethanol would lead to food shortages take an absurd view of fuels. Sure, if every single car that is currently running on gasoline today were replaced with a comparable car that ran on ethanol, yes, there would be a huge impact. But lets be realistic, no serious studies have ever pointed to a 100% replacement of gasoline with ethanol, and the idea that every car would be converted on a single day is ludicrous.

    No single fuel will be the answer to our transportation problems. Petrol, bio-diesel, algae, ethanol, butane/propane/natural gas, electric, hybrids, etc... A blend of all will make up the future fuel markets. And as any one becomes more expensive, the others will become more popular.

    Assuming ethanol takes off to the point that it impacts food availability, a number of things will likely happen:
    1) The Feds will reduce subsidies for growing fuel-corn
    2) The Feds will increase subsidies for growing consumable corn
    3) The price of imported corn would be lower than local corn and investment in international agriculture would rise.

    By all means, tear down the Ethanol arguments using valid arguments, like water contamination, transportation issues, and the horrible efficiencies of "flex-fuel" vehicles. Not to mention the agricultural impacts of requiring nitrogen based fertilizers and the relatively low yield per acre. But leave the food argument buried, it's just silly.


  • by Krannert IT ( 1675504 ) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:51PM (#31162260)

    I read an interesting article about how ethanol really can be similar to gas, parituclar in an engine designed for gas. []

    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 fuel cars is that they are still tuned for their main source of fuel, traditional gas.

    Ethonol also eliminates the need for a catalytic converter to eliminate engine knocking. If it can be produced using land which is inefficent for other agriculural uses such as west texas ranch land where hundres of acres are need per cow or argicultural byproducts such as corn cobs it is a great alternative to traditional petrolium based fuel. I never drank the corn based ethanol Koolaid, but an economical cellulosic based ethanol sounds very promising.

  • Duckweed Perhaps (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Yergle143 ( 848772 ) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:52PM (#31162278)

    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 Chruisan ( 1040302 ) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @08:20PM (#31162596)
    In addition, not everyone works during daylight hours. Try working second or third shift and hoofing it or utilizing public transportation. The schedules are reduced, the weather is awful, you'll get mugged, or any number of not so pleasant consequences.
  • 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 []

    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 [] and the char left on the ground, some varieties are even nitrogen fixing. []
    Additionally converting biomass to char produces distillates that are useful as fuel [] creating a win-win situation.

  • by CorporateSuit ( 1319461 ) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @09:55PM (#31163444)
    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, and that help has to purchase parts from out of the country -- which screws them again on their currency trade. This maladjusted currency business affects them on their importans and it affects them on their exports.

    "Well, what if a kind, European business decided to dump a bunch of tractors on the people and buy up their farmland and run a business from it?" you may ask. That sounds like a good idea, until the business sees that every Euro they make doing business with the Liberians could be 10 Euros if they turned around and sold their produce to their own countries!

    In this case, the tyrant is the European Union and their currency exchange rates with the African nations, moreso than dictators who can afford to feed themselves, but stare at a steep wall when it comes to the international commerce they would need in order to supply their own agricultural revolutions.
  • by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @10:45PM (#31163810) Journal
    > That's just the way markets are. Speculation is part of an efficient market.

    Yes. But it stops being so efficient when the costs of speculation get really high.

    I think the costs have got too high already and perhaps there should be a bailout tax on speculators and their friends so that they can at least pay their share - the tax money goes solely to a fund for bailing out financial disasters resulting from speculation (and "legal financial fraud" e.g. packaging of crap as "AAA" grade).
  • by ls671 ( 1122017 ) * on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @11:37PM (#31164306) Homepage

    I guess we have to keep the hope alive in order to make the population believe that it will be business as usual in the future and avoid some type of revolution as oil runs out.

    The idea is to make people believe that we will find a way to replace oil while maintaining the present sale price in our highly dependent oil dependent economy. []

  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Wednesday February 17, 2010 @05:35AM (#31166708)

    This is so that I can actually own a house and not bring up my kids in some silly apartment (which is all we could afford if we lived right by work).

    If you aren't satisfied with the current setup, then your children have something in common with crack babies: they were born of parents who couldn't afford parenthood.

    The writing was on the wall long ago, much before anyone who is a child today was born. Oil will end. If you bet that oil prices wouldn't start rising until after your children were grown up, you bet wrong.

    Not having adequate living conditions in locations served by mass transit and not having mass transit in places with adequate living conditions only means too many people like you chose to disregard the inevitable future.


"No, no, I don't mind being called the smartest man in the world. I just wish it wasn't this one." -- Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, WATCHMEN