30 January 2008

The Future of Fuels?

Via Slashdot, I ran across this article about a start-up pioneering a new method of producing ethanol.
A biofuel startup in Illinois can make ethanol from just about anything organic for less than $1 per gallon, and it wouldn't interfere with food supplies, company officials said.

Coskata, which is backed by General Motors and other investors, uses bacteria to convert almost any organic material, from corn husks (but not the corn itself) to municipal trash, into ethanol.

"It's not five years away, it's not 10 years away. It's affordable, and it's now," said Wes Bolsen, the company's vice president of business development.

[...]

Besides cutting production costs to fire sale prices, the process avoids some key drawbacks of making ethanol from corn, company officials said. It wouldn't impact the food supply, and its net energy balance is high because the technique works almost anywhere using almost anything with great efficiency. The end result will be E85 sold at the pump for about a dollar cheaper per gallon than gasoline, according to the company.

[...]

Coskata uses existing gasification technology to convert almost any organic material into synthesis gas, which is a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Rather than fermenting that gas or using thermo-chemical catalysts to produce ethanol, Coskata pumps it into a reactor containing bacteria that consume the gas and excrete ethanol. Richard Tobey, Coskata's vice president of engineering, says the process yields 99.7 percent pure ethanol.

Gasification and bacterial conversion are common methods of producing ethanol, but biofuel experts said Coskata is the first to combine them. Doing so, they said, merges the feedstock flexibility of gasification with the relatively low cost of bacterial conversion.

[...]

"You're not bound by location," he said. "If you're in Orange County, you can use municipal waste. If you're in the Pacific Northwest, you can use wood waste. Florida has sugar. The Midwest has corn. Each region has been blessed with the ability to grow its own biomass."


This is very good news, if it pans out. The history of startups that promised huge changes in how energy in produced in the US is long, and the results of those promises in real existence is very short. I wouldn't exactly be shocked if some technical glitch causes a scale-up of this process to be unfeasible.

There are plusses and minuses involved with this company being backed by GM. If the car companies are pushing this technology, it means that they will have some incentive to make cars that run efficiently on their ethanol, and that kind of venture capital allows for reasonably quick expansion of the method of it does pan out. On the other hand, running future technologies through the same massive corporations might end up with a similar strangehold on production and therefore price that we see today.

I don't know how large the equipment needed to run this technology are, but it's not hard to envision a future in which most people have a sort of high-tech compost heap where they place their organic trash, which is then converted using some chemical/microbiological method into fuel. There's a lot of energy in carbon chains that isn't directly convertible into energy by the biochemistry in our bodies, and it'd be nice to stop throwing all that energy away.

I've always thought that the solution to the fuel crisis would come at least in part from microbiology. Advances in artifical life forms are also promising -- it's possible that we'll one day see custom-made organisms that turn eat garbage and produce fuel as a waste product. There are obvious issues with controllability, but I'd hazard to guess that this century will be a century of microbiological and biochemical advance, a prediction that I am the absolute first person to ever make .

Call me cautiously optimistic on this one.

3 comments:

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