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Ethanol still an industry problem

NMMA’s Washington lobbying team did a great job of getting some provisions into the recently passed energy bill that will slow down the push for increased mid grade levels over E10 in the nation’s gasoline. But I fear it’s kind of like saying that after you jump off your roof, you may experience contact with the ground!

The “ground” in this case will likely be an eventual stronger push for ethanol – can you say E20 or E30 or higher? The energy bill increases the amount of renewable fuel such as ethanol in our gas supply from 9 billion gallons in 2008 up to 36 billion gallons in 2022.  The bill also includes the boating industry-supported provision requiring the EPA to thoroughly review new fuels for safety and engine damage prior to approving them for sale. Mid-level ethanol blends above E10 are known to damage marine engines.

Interestingly, the pressure to up the E formula won’t come from corn farmers or environmentalists. Expect it to come from manufacturers now in a high stakes game of turning cellulose into ethanol. “Leave the gun (corn), take the cannoli” (cellulose).

Low cost cellulose is the structural component of plants, the fiber that gives them body. It’s also the most abundant organic material on Earth. In fact, the earth would be hundreds of miles deep in cellulose if it weren’t for bacteria with special enzymes that break cellulose molecules down into fuel for their metabolisms. Cellulose doesn’t compete with food, because it’s inedible for humans and it makes up a small part of the diet for most domesticated animals. More importantly, it’s easy to produce with fast-growing plants like switchgrass and cottonwood trees, which require far less fertilizer than food crops like corn. A joint report from the Departments of Agriculture and Energy says the U.S. could grow more than a billion tons of those crops each year. Moreover, cellulose is readily available as waste — for example, two-thirds of what we find in landfills is cellulose.

That’s why companies and venture capitalists are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into cellulose technology. For example, BP gave $500 million to the University of Illinois and the University of California at Berkeley to create the Energy Biosciences Institute, which will develop the means to turn cellulose into ethanol on a large scale. The Department of Energy has pledged $385 million to six companies to build demonstration plants and $375 million to create three new research centers to find better ways of turning cellulose into fuel.

The challenge they, and many others, are facing is to solve the problem that bacteria find so easy: digesting cellulose so that it turns into sugar. Once the sugar is made, the rest is easy: Just use yeast to ferment it to produce the alcohol and distill the resulting alcohol to concentrate it.

Today, breaking down cellulose involves enzymes that are expensive to create. So, ethanol from cellulose isn’t competitive, yet. New technology will change that. It’s not a question of whether scientists can do this; it’s only a question of who’s going to do it first and best. When they do, costs for ethanol will drop dramatically, triggering new pressures to significantly increase ethanol and reduce reliance on oil, and boating’s battle to deal with ethanol will begin all over again.


6 comments on “Ethanol still an industry problem

  1. Thomas Dammrich

    Norm, too bad you didn’t expose ethanol for the scam that it really is. It takes more energy to produce of unit of ethanol than the unit of ethanol produces in use. The carbon footprint of ethanol is greater than the carbon footprint of gasoline.

  2. Bill Gross

    It is no doubt that ethanol production from cellulose is a huge business creating a tremendous
    profit centers and wealth. Do these people realize that their children and grandchildren will have
    to deal with the environmental problems created by this technology will create.

    The only problems we have in this country, beyond corporate special interest and greed, are idea problems. We can solve anything is we put our heads together.

    After being involved in the marine business as a retailer for three decades, I feel the only
    hope for the recreational marine industry is to retire the “dinosaur” internal combustion
    engine and produce alternate forms of propulsion. The marine engine manufacturers like
    Brunswick have always been years behind the automotive industry.

    The hydrogen fuel cell is years away, not decades. Come on Brunswick, BRP and Volvo, get on the ball! Maybe these companies should look into what what GM, Honda and BMW are doing.

    We Americans have developed an attitude that global warming is someone elses problem.

  3. P. J. Lash

    Personal experience with phase separation leads me to believe that increasing the E content per gallon will only make the problem worse and leave the boater “holding the bag.” Engine manufactureres will adjust to the reformulation. However, once it’s in the tank with ANY moisture, more problems will occur. At this point, fuel is about 4 bucks a gallon. It cost me well over $10.00 per gallon to have my tank pumped, plus all new fuel lines (the inside of the lines sloughed off,) new Racor, etc. Carbs needed to be acid cleaned, engine screens cleaned. All in all I spent well over $1,000. to fix this issue.

  4. Rob Brown

    Tom, you are correct for now. Although, if we do not push our way through the development curve where one-day ethanol will be a more viable alternative, where does our reliance on a non renewable fuel end?
    Not to far in the future refiners will be using the by-products of making ethanol to power the process itself. We need to, as a country, continue to support the systems development through the dip.
    I trust that the engine manufacturers will continue to adapt their products to run on the new fuel blends as they come available.
    The shift is not going to be with out a little pain and an initial higher cost.
    The results will be a fair trade off by having a more cost stable, cleaner, renewable fuel.

  5. dave boso

    “Gore Gas” is gone, the largest ethanol plant in Western US just suspended production, it dosen’t work, it isn’t eco efficent, the only way the US will solve the energy problem is to increase production, and get the EPA out of our lives.

  6. Republican

    Goes to show you what a real idiot George Bush and hie EPA are.

    P. S. Where did this Bill Gross guy fall and hit his head?

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