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Coskata Inc. grows many microbes in how, in its efforts to find natural bacteria that optimally produce ethanol. These little guys are the key to Coskata's new method. Its current generation features high efficiency, live in-gas in an aerobic environment, and reproduce naturally.

A Coskata employee mans the ethanol reactor.  (Source: Coskata Inc.)

Tubing with selective membranes separates the reactor's output into pure water and pure ethanol.  (Source: Coskata Inc.)
GM and Coskata partner to bring transform the way ethanol is mass produced

At the General Motors section of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) at Detroit, the biggest news wasn't cars -- it was fuel.  GM unveiled and detailed its efforts to take Ethanol from a impractical technology into a viable alternative energy strategy.  Not too long ago it looked like the end of ethanol fuel, with advent of a hungry microbial hydrogen production research effort, which promised better efficiency than current ethanol production.

The biggest current downside of current ethanol infrastructure is simply its source; current ethanol can only be produced using the chemical breakdown of sugar-laden crops, such as corn and sugar cane.  This makes ethanol more expensive and extremely agriculture dependent.  Most U.S. experts agree that the amount of land needed to grow enough sugar crops to power the nation's vehicles would be prohibitive.  Microbial hydrogen currently has ethanol trumped on this count, as it can use anything from crop waste to household table scraps as a source of hydrogen.

Ethanol is down, but certainly not out.  An advanced new approach, dubbed "cellulosic ethanol production," developed by Coskata Inc. located in Warrenville, Illinois promises to make ethanol cheaply and efficiently from virtually anything organic-based.  The long list of possible sources include used tires, crop waste, sewage, household kitchen waste, yard waste etc. 

GM, inspired by Coskata's innovation, announced a major partnership with firm last night.  GM reportedly looked into as many as sixteen ethanol startups offering different processes, and picked Coskata as the winner.  GM invested a small amount of equity to cement the relationship, and both firms are aggressively moving ahead to bring the technology to the market. 

The alternative energy auto market is not unfamiliar ground for GM.  The company showcased leading designs with its Provoq fuel cell concept, its Volt electric car, and its fleet of 100 fuel cell-equipped Equinox SUVs that are currently being deployed in California and New York.

In an interview with GM's Vice Chairman of Product Development, Bob Lutz, DailyTech was provided exclusive insight into exactly how this process works.  Lutz, in response to DailyTech's question, began by stating, "All the other companies use enzymes, which are incredibly expensive.  This has been a major stumbling block."

Lutz went on to detail how instead of enzymes -- which are tricky to mass produce and prohibitively expensive -- GM turned to nature.  GM's approach starts rather traditionally by putting the various organic waste materials, such as tires, crops, crop waste and yard waste into a grinder.  The remaining powder is then exposed to plasma, which causes the organic powder to ferment, releasing carbon-chain gas.  It rises into the air where natural anaerobic bacteria eats the gas molecules and excretes ethanol and water vapor.  This mixture then rises, and travels through a series of tubes with a separating membrane.  The yield is pure water and pure ethanol.

"The bacteria are from nature so no patent was needed.  And they reproduce on their own," Lutz explained, excitedly.  The process, Lutz elaborated, is a down-to earth approach that does not use designer organisms or chemicals.  Further it eliminates many steps in traditional or enzymatic processing, including the need for a centrifuge or still. 

The process trumps traditional production in efficiency.  Less than a third as much water is needed to produce a gallon of ethanol, which makes the process more affordable and easier to implement.  Further an analysis of the process conducted at Argone National Laboratory reveals that for every unit of energy Coskata uses, it creates approximately 7.7 times as much energy, a ratio well above current tradition ethanol production.

Lutz emphasizes the importance of reducing reliance on foreign energy via ethanol fuel.  He also explained that the move will take GM and other auto makers "out of the firing line" of accusations that they contribute to everything from "out-of-control global warming, to funding terrorism."

GM plans to aggressively fund Coskata and deploy the technology.  While many alternative energy research technologies languish in the development phase, GM announced that a pilot plant will begin producing fuel before the close of 2008.  By 2011 a full scale plant will come online, capable of producing 50 to 100 million gallons of ethanol a year.  Such a plant would almost amount to 1% of the world's total ethanol production, including ethanol used for industrial sources.

The price per gallon to produce the fuel is approximately $1 per gallon, but Lutz stated that with Coskata profits, shipping, taxes, storage, and a retailer's cut, the fuel would likely raise the price to a still very affordable $2 per gallon. 

Lutz said that while such a fuel would be very attractive to the consumer, the big hold up is the oil companies.  He points out that while GM has sold 6 million flex-fuel vehicles in the U.S. capable of using ethanol, less than 1% of pumps in the U.S. are ethanol-equipped. 

Will GM's new advanced ethanol process win out over hydrogen fuel cells and other efforts?  With promises of mass production by the end of the year, and $2 per gallon fuel costs that don't dip into American agriculture, Coskata and GM might end up in the spotlight a lot in 2008.

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By JasonMick on 1/14/2008 11:45:50 AM , Rating: 5
Actually I would disagree with both ops. Granted, I am usually down on Ethanol (did you read my other article?), but in my interview GM firmly stated that you would be seeing an estimated @ pump price of around $2/gallon after ALL factors. Food prices won't increased, as this can process waste plastics, tires, etc, which make up a significant portion of our landfills across the country.

If you look @ the logistics, ethanol has about 67% of the energy content of regular gasoline, and as long as the price of gas stays @ $3 or above, this would be very competitive. Plus the psychological impact of seeing $2 at a pump would give a slight edge to it I believe. And depending on OPEC's upcoming monitoring decisions, that may be even more competitive (look into the buzz on OPEC and the US dollar).

In this sense it is extend the life of petroleum by recycling petroleum byproducts into ethanol. It may not be the solution for 100% of the nations vehicles, but its a practical solution for the near future.

You gotta give GM credit for working hard at this one. I think it really is practical American ingenuity in action in this case.

By JasonMick on 1/14/2008 11:50:49 AM , Rating: 3
*monetary decisions.

OPEC has been mulling over abandoning the dollar for a while now.,8599,1685...
which would both hurt the economy and raise gas prices. May not happen, lets hope, but if it doesn't tech like this becomes even more critical.

By masher2 on 1/14/2008 12:14:20 PM , Rating: 3
I have to agree with Jason here. Assuming this really does result in ethanol from waste at an unsubsidized cost of $2/gallon, its a major innovation, and one well worth supporting.

The key word here is unsubsidized. though. I do wonder if GM is calculating current government subsidy rates into their figures.

By eye smite on 1/14/2008 12:22:12 PM , Rating: 2
My skepticism comes in with GM. They have shown a strong tendency in the past to initiate these type of projects and then quietly pull them 2-4 yrs later counting on everyone forgetting it was even there. Their new Malibu Hybrid listed mpg on their site makes me laugh. It gets 24 town and 32 hwy. I have a 93 Olds 88 that get 24 town and 31 hwy. How is this an improvement?

By DigitalFreak on 1/14/2008 1:14:54 PM , Rating: 2
The problem with the Malibu hybrid is that it's a stage 1. All it does is turn off the engine at the stop light (or when normally idling). Hardly what I would classify as a hybrid.

By killerroach on 1/14/2008 12:29:15 PM , Rating: 3
I'm not convinced over the ability of these microbe-based solutions to produce large quantities of ethanol cheaply, but they are impressively elegant in their approach...

That being said, if it means we can get the government to end corn ethanol subsidies (which, in turn, are having a nasty ripple effect on food prices)... all the better. Personally, I'm more in favor of using a combination of AFEX and chemical hydrolysis for the production of cellulosic ethanol, but if these guys can really get the sort of efficiency that they say they can out of these microbes, then more power to them.

By Chadder007 on 1/14/2008 12:49:46 PM , Rating: 2
As long as the prices for some tasty Corn doesn't skyrocket i'm for it. :D

By drank12quartsstrohsbeer on 1/14/2008 1:06:19 PM , Rating: 4
Even of the cost of ethanol is equal to the cost of gasoline, it would be worthwhile.

Heck I'd pay $6 a gallon if it meant we could tell the middle east to --- ----.

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