More economical process for making ethanol from nonfood sources

March 25, 2010
Switch grass swaying in the breeze could become a more economical source of ethanol to power cars down the highway thanks to discovery of a way to reduce the cost of making ethanol from non-food biomass. Credit: US Dept. of Agriculture

Scientists in Wisconsin are reporting discovery of a way to lower the cost of converting wood, corn stalks and leaves, switch grass, and other non-food biomass materials into ethanol fuel. They describe their process, which reduces amounts of costly enzymes needed to break down tough fibrous cellulose matter in biomass for fermentation into alcohol, here today at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

"We believe our finding will have a major impact on the economics of cellulose to biofuels conversions," said Rajai Atalla, Ph.D. "We think it can make cellulose significantly more competitive with corn as the primary source of glucose as a for biofuels." Atalla is the founder of Cellulose Sciences International in Madison, Wisc.

Ethanol has become a mainstay in stretching out supplies of gasoline as the United States and other countries seek renewable sources of energy to help reduce dependence on fossil fuels and imported oil. Most of the ethanol added to gasoline comes from the starch and sugar in corn, sugar beets, , and other . Questions have arisen, however, on whether that approach is sustainable, and about its impact in increasing food prices and reducing the availability of food.

Atalla's involvement with research on cellulose dates to the 1960s, but it was a recent experience that inspired much of his focus on ethanol from cellulose rather than corn. In 2007, he read about people in Mexico struggling with the high cost of corn due to increased demand for corn to make ethanol.

"It got me thinking," Atalla recalled. "I thought, 'This is ridiculous.' If we can produce what we need from cellulose, rather than starch, we won't need to compete with food products. But we faced huge obstacles. The enzymes needed to use cellulose cost about 10 times more than those used for converting corn. With the treatment we've developed, though, we may be able to cut the enzyme cost to about the same range as it is for corn, which would make cellulose a much more viable biomass substrate for the production of biofuel."

The conversion of cellulose to glucose has long remained a challenge for scientists because of its resistance to change into simpler sugars. The process that Atalla and colleagues have developed makes the cellulose break down more easily and could make cellulosic ethanol more competitive to corn and a viable energy source. It also is not as energy intensive as other biofuel conversion processes like biomass gasification.

Experiments showed they were able to convert up to 80 percent more when compared to traditional conversion processes. "Using this new technique, we expect that we will be able to reduce the prerequisite dosage of enzymes by a factor of 10, which could bring the cost of enzymes for conversion to the same level as that for corn," he said.

Explore further: Fuel from fiber -- Pretreatment can put corn stalks, trees in your car's tank

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not rated yet Mar 25, 2010
What is the process?
not rated yet Mar 25, 2010
Does this involve incantations and spells, or is there actual science involved. Very difficult to tell from this oh so fluffy piece. I think the audience here is a little more detail oriented than this writer seems to appreciate. This level of writing would be nice for Oprah though.
not rated yet Mar 26, 2010
ok - Ibuz, i prefer they keep all the hard vocab and mathematical equations out of the article, so that i may understand the jist of what is being proposed. Why do you need every bit of detail - do you plan on setting up a processing plant?
not rated yet Mar 26, 2010
Why do you need every bit of detail - do you plan on setting up a processing plant?

Actually, that's probably why they DIDN'T give any details...."trade secret" and all that....then they can "capitalize", and charge 2 or 3 times what it costs them to do it anyway, cause that's what "capitalism" is..."pass along the savings..."

Oh wait, nobody does that, they just charge the same and pocket 2 to 3 times more profits...
not rated yet Mar 26, 2010
I agree with bq1 + Ibuz's sentiment.

Saying one has a process to solve the significant problem without mentioning even the basis of the idea is annoying (to me). Saying 'something' increases the efficiency of cellulose to ethanol is not sufficient.

I found Atella's ACS publication and the most recent is 2006. His pulp-mill effluent degradation paper was published in 1997.

Science requires reproducibility. If Atella wants renown for his accomplishments, he'll have to actually document them.
not rated yet Mar 28, 2010
I would have like a little more info... ;) I read somewhere that Henry Ford's notion of the Model A involved a hemp-ethanol system that would be sold to farmers so they could grow their own fuel. The gas station at every corner wasn't his vision I don't think... and it's funny, how we're winding up back where the notions were headed originally...

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