Devotees see cellulosic ethanol gaining momentum

Devotees see cellulosic ethanol gaining momentum

Billionaire Peter Branson, the British business mogul who owns Virgin Atlantic Airways, says he’s going to burn cellulosic ethanol in his 100-plane fleet within the next five or six years.

Made from organic waste generated by farming and forestry, cellulosic ethanol is made from cellulose, rather than sugars and starches as is normal ethanol. In a recent statement, Branson predicted that in the next 20 to 30 years cellulosic ethanol will replace conventional fuel.

Is it possible? In a speech before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last June, Michael Pacheco, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., said to move the ethanol industry where it needs to be, “We have to move beyond corn grain as the primary biomass resource.”

He cited corn stover – the non-food parts of the corn plant – as the most abundant resource the U.S. has. In Spain, however, the world’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol production plant is being fed with wheat straw.

Pacheco said more than a billion tons of biomass are available for use in the United States without affecting ongoing needs for food and fiber. That total represents about 3.5 billion barrels of oil, or 60 percent of the nation’s 6 billion barrel plus annual appetite. The U.S. currently produces about 4 billion gallons a year of corn grain ethanol.

Although cellulosic ethanol is too expensive to produce today, Pacheco said, steady progress is being made toward reducing the amount. Within the next six years, he looks forward to cellulosic ethanol being on par with the price of grain ethanol. Given the strides that have already been made, he stated a long-term goal of reducing the cost of cellulosic ethanol to as little as 60 cents a gallon.

Emission studies reveal that cellulosic ethanol is better for the environment. It releases about a third of the greenhouse gases of sugar-fermented ethanol.

As for controversy over the amount of energy it takes to produce a gallon of ethanol, Pacheco said the ratio of cellulosic ethanol to the fossil energy used to produce it is 10 to 1.

“From the perspective of science, at least, this debate has been decided in favor of continued development of ethanol,” he said.

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