Cellulosic Ethanol Advances

On January 8, 2008, Scientific American published this article:


which describes the outcome of a study done on switchgrass culture by the Department of Energy.  The results of the study were encouraging, demonstrating that switchgrass is capable of delivering as much as 540% of the energy required to grow, harvest and refine it into ethanol.  This compares with about 25% for corn.

This is great, but unsurprising news.  What the article completely fails to mention is that to date there still is no economically viable method for converting the cellulose in grasses into the fermentable sugars needed for ethanol production.  Currently, expensive synthetic enzymes are normally used for the job, though work is ongoing with a genetically engineered yeast that can break down cellulose directly.  To my knowledge, though, there has been no breakthrough on that yet that will allow for the cheap conversion of cellulose to sugar.

 As an aside for those of you who have doubts about genetically modified organisms, consider this.  What's being worked on  to promote economically viable ethanol production is a strain of yeast that can directly break down cellulose.  Cellulose of course is one of the primary structural components of all plant life, and it is a notoriously stable molecule (which is why it takes so long for fallen trees to rot).  Imagine a yeast that can literally dissolve plant material getting out into the global ecosystem.  I rather doubt we'll see forests melting every time it rains and we get a yeast bloom, but to my knowledge no one has seriously considered the possible environmental consequences of a cellulose-eating yeast.

Nevertheless, I'm glad to see that DOE is moving forward with its cellulosic ethanol research.  There's no question that cellulose production is cheaper and less environmentally devastating than sugar or carbohydrate production.  If we are to engineer a soft landing from our current petro-based transportation system, inexpensive, environmentally 'sustainable' (sic) biofuel production is going to play an important role.

In the meantime, it would be very nice if there was a convenient place in Carrboro/Chapel Hill to purchase biofuels.  Biodiesel is available from the co-op, but it isn't available at any retailers, and to my knowledge, E85 (ethanol) isn't available anywhere closer than Durham.   



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