Cellulosic Ethanol Expected to Overtake Corn-Based Ethanol Within 20 Years
For the past two years, legitimate strides have been made to reduce America’s dependency on foreign oil by increasing the availability of alternative fuels.
The leading alternative fuel candidate so far is corn-based ethanol, and the federal government is funneling billions of dollars into ethanol research and agricultural subsidies.
However, prolific research suggests that the most efficient and cost effective method to produce large scale quantities of ethanol is through cellulosic fiber derived by isolating sugars from woody biomass. Energy experts believe cellulosic ethanol will outperform corn-based ethanol in the marketplace within the next 20 years, making it the best option for a sustainable, renewable source of fuel.
The U.S. Department of Energy awarded $385 million this year to six companies hoping to build the nation’s first high-yield biomass-to-fuel plants. The investment is part of the Bush administration’s goal to make cellulosic ethanol competitive by 2012.
Congress also is supporting efforts to develop alternative fuels. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 20-3 earlier this year to approve a bill that would require the nation to use 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. However, Congressional efforts to spur ethanol output still leave some questions unanswered.
Ethanol on the Rise
Using ethanol as fuel is hardly a new concept. Henry Ford first began experimenting with ethanol at the turn of the 20th century, long before oil refineries had proliferated. In 1948, the president of International Paper anticipated that sugar-laden wood pulp would be used to supply the U.S. and Canada with alcohol and chemical raw materials.
So why has ethanol continually been overshadowed as a fuel source? The answer is simple: cost. Ethanol distilleries are only just beginning to put a dip in the oil hegemony largely due to the cost of extracting chemicals in corn, soybeans and wood debris.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), corn-based ethanol prices finally fell below crude oil prices during the middle of the decade. By 2004, oil averaged nearly $65 per barrel while corn-based ethanol was roughly $50 per barrel.
Energy experts attribute the affordability of corn-based ethanol to extensive federal funding, subsidies and research grants. New technology is increasing ethanol output, too.
“We are seeking to accelerate research breakthroughs that contribute towards making biofuels a cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels, with a goal of replacing 30% of transportation fuels with biofuels by 2030,” said Dr. Ray Orbach, Under Secretary of Science for the Department of Energy (DoE). At the end of 2006, DoE teamed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allocate an additional $4 million in biofuels research grants.
With money pouring in for research, development and production, the ethanol industry and market will continue to grow. Nearly 9.6 billion gallons of ethanol was produced in 2006. In the same year, the world consumed roughly 326.5 billion gallons of gasoline.
The U.S. contributed to over half of the worldwide ethanol production in 2006 with 112 U.S. plants producing more than 5 billion gallons. Additionally, President Bush plans for the U.S. to replace at least 15% of gasoline consumption within the next 10 years by increasing ethanol production to 35 billion gallons annually.
Corn Falls Short
Although the agricultural industry is seeking as many subsidies as possible to further galvanize corn as ethanol’s staple raw material, there is reason to believe that ethanol production may soon shift to other raw materials.
For one thing, there may not be enough corn or even available farmland in the U.S. to meet the biofuel production goals set by Congress and the Bush administration. A recent DoE study suggests that ethanol derived from corn is likely to top out at nearly 12 billion gallons per year; that volume covers only about one-third of the target set by the White House.
Experts estimate that it would take at least 50 million more acres of farmland growing corn for ethanol to even put a dent in U.S. gasoline consumption, and meeting Bush’s mandate would require at least 80 million acres of corn.
Furthermore, research by the Natural Resource Defense Council suggests that excessive land use to grow corn could potentially devastate the soil as well as finely-attuned agricultural ecosystems that require a delicate balance of plant diversity. Critics of corn-based ethanol contend that the rising prices of corn will incite farmers to plant only corn instead of rotating crops at regular intervals. Repeated corn crops could remove vital minerals and nutrients from the soil, resulting in lower yields.
Another major obstacle to increasing corn production and diverting more corn for ethanol is the impact on agricultural feed and the grocery industry. Over the past two years, feed prices have doubled to over $4 per bushel. U.S. grocery manufacturers use nearly one-fifth of the corn crop; corn is used to make corn syrup, for example, a sweetener in soft drinks and candy. Eventually, as corn prices and feed prices climb, prices for beef and poultry also will rise as well as the various food products that use corn-based ingredients. Proponents of corn-based ethanol argue that savings in fuel costs will easily offset any price hikes at the grocery store.
Shifting corn to ethanol production also would drastically reduce the amount of food exported to third-world countries, critics contend.
Naturally, oil companies have taken a keen interest in fighting for the little guy. Eric Holthusen, a Shell Oil executive, said that using food crops to produce fuel while impoverished people starve is “morally inappropriate.”
Regardless of one’s ethical bent, the fact remains that corn is not the ideal raw material for fuel production. About seven gallons of gasoline is required to generate 10 gallons of corn-based ethanol. But it’s a start.
Wood Is Better for Environment
With the ability of the agriculture industry to supply enough corn for the growing ethanol market coming into question, experts are looking to wood fiber — trees and wood waste material — to fill the gap.
According to the estimates and with genetically engineered strains, corn is likely to yield a maximum of 750 gallons of ethanol per acre. Trees, on the other hand, have the potential to generate up to 2,700 gallons of ethanol per acre by 2030.
Research published in the journal Science recently suggested that corn-based ethanol has limitations on its ability to reduce greenhouse gasses, too. Alexander Farrell and colleagues found that, with corn-based ethanol, reductions of greenhouse gas emission top out at only 18%. Cellulosic (wood fiber) ethanol can reduce greenhouse emission by 88%.
“Cellulosic ethanol simply delivers profoundly more renewable energy than corn ethanol,” the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said in a report. “Cellulosic ethanol production promises to consume less petroleum, produce fewer greenhouse gases, and require less land compared to corn ethanol.”
Weyerhaeuser recently teamed with Chevron to assess the feasibility of generating cellulosic ethanol from Weyerhaeuser’s generous supply of wood waste.
“Weyerhaeuser takes ideas from the laboratory to the forest and mill to create innovative uses and value from our forest and land resources — in this case, a sustainable source of renewable energy for transportation,” Steven R. Rogel, chairman, president and chief executive officer for Weyerhaeuser, said earlier this year. “Crops created for and dedicated to fuel feedstocks offer the opportunity to augment value creation from our managed forest lands.”
Although the company has done and will continue to perform extensive research into cellulosic technologies, added Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal, there is no word yet on whether the company will invest in bio-refineries.
Investing in cellulosic ethanol production is both environmentally and economically sensible, but policymakers and the private sector should be careful not to exhaust existing feedstocks, said Nathaniel Green, senior policy analyst with the NRDC.
“The fact that cellulosic technologies work with most hardwoods makes sustainability of timbering really critical, and how we do that will be an important issue going forward,” said Green. Conservationists and businesses involved in cellulosic ethanol production “are going to have to work together,” he added, especially when deciding if and how to regulate forests dedicated to cellulosic ethanol.
“We’re relying on corn as our primary feedstock for ethanol production today, but as we go forward, we’re going to bring new feedstocks into production,” said Ernie Shae, project leader for the 25×25 renewable energy focus group. The organization is striving to ensure that 25% of America’s energy comes from farms and forests by 2025.
Five hundred companies and organizations have pledged their support for the 25×25 action plan (available at www.25×25.org), including the Woodland Owners Association and the Forest Resources Association.
Shea sees the debate between corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol as nothing more than “healthy competition” that will eventually smooth out the market and reduce reliance on subsidies. Furthermore, he expects increased collaboration between different organizations to increase rural jobs and spark economic growth.
Other Benefits of Wood
Even though the future looks bright for timber in the ethanol business, there are still some hurdles to overcome. Switch grass is another leading candidate for feedstock for cellulosic ethanol; it can be harvested annually with little detriment to the environment.
On the upside, experts like Dr. Thomas Amidon of the State University of New York are pushing for bio-refineries that use wood fiber for raw material. “The trees are here and the can provide year-round employment,” he said in an interview for the National Hardwood Lumber Association. “Grasses go dormant in the winter and they’re difficult and expensive to store in a year-round process.”
The other benefit of trees is size. Scientists can extract more sugar from each cut tree. The chemical processes required to do it are still lengthy and costly, which is why cellulosic ethanol costs three to four times as much per gallon to produce.
However, technological advancements are narrowing the cost gap on a daily basis, and scientists are continually finding new ways to use other chemical compounds extracted in the refining process. Levulenic acid, for instance, is a base used in many industrial chemicals. Such breakthroughs could dramatically increase the value of woody biomass with time.
The DoE intends to bring the cost of producing fuel to below 70 cents per gallon while scientists are working feverishly to make that dream a reality. The end result: a booming economy and longer summer drives — all thanks to nature’s bounty in forests combined with modern ingenuity.