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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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First Post Ever
By stickninja on 1/14/2008 11:55:46 AM , Rating: 3
I am tired of people criticizing ethanol fuel as a viable alternative to gasoline and especially hybrids, without doing the research. Saab’s Biopower vehicles achieve increased horsepower and torque without sacrificing fuel efficiency. The 9-3 Saloon (Biopower is only sold in Europe currently), manages a combined MPG of 36.7 MPG.

The fact is, ethanol requires higher compression ratios (or boost) to effectively utilize it due to higher octane rating. Turbo-charging and super-charging are becoming more common, so ethanol's viability as an alternative to gasoline will increase without drastically increasing the complexity of vehicles, as hybrids do.

RE: First Post Ever
By TomZ on 1/14/2008 12:00:50 PM , Rating: 3
The main problem with ethanol is on the supply side - limited supply generally with associated costs as well as secondary economic impacts, e.g., raising food prices.

RE: First Post Ever
By rdeegvainl on 1/14/2008 12:06:19 PM , Rating: 2
Big chicken and the egg situation here. Ethanol will have a hard time breaking the image that it is less efficient whilst the vast majority of engines are designed for gas, but until they can get lots of people selling it, they can't push out vehicles optimized for ethanol to break the preconceived notions.

RE: First Post Ever
By zombiexl on 1/14/08, Rating: 0
RE: First Post Ever
By NullSubroutine on 1/14/2008 2:04:05 PM , Rating: 2
Food prices can be more accurately associated with the price of oil per barrel and gas prices increase. Doesn't matter how cheap you produce something in the US it has to be shipped and Trucking is typically the most used, as it is less expensive than air, and boarder than trains (which in this area only bring coal to the local power plant).

RE: First Post Ever
By Ringold on 1/14/2008 3:00:18 PM , Rating: 3
Food prices can be more accurately associated with the price of oil per barrel and gas prices increase.

Unfortunately, that's completely wrong, even though it does on the surface make some sense.

Two primary drivers. Asian prosperity and America converting food to fuel.

A third, smaller reason is the problems with Australia's crop.

Coming in dead last, and a point I've not heard mentioned at all by economists, would be the transport costs. There's no way it could explain the *massive* run up it costs.

RE: First Post Ever
By Praze on 1/15/2008 8:13:44 PM , Rating: 2
Unfortunately, the relation between food costs rising and the increased production of ethanol as seen by the consumer is a common misconception and is entirely coincidental. Crops grown for ethanol refinement are non-food-grade crops. The corn grown to produce the ethanol used in flex fuel vehicles and the like exist for that sole purpose, while the farms growing food-grade corn are not related.

However, this method could never fulfill the requirements of a full fledged adoption of ethanol as THE alternative to gasoline, as the amount of US farm land in existence could only produce about 4% of the total national fuel consumption. You most definitely would see some rising food prices in that extreme case, but it just isnt going to happen.

RE: First Post Ever
By dluther on 1/16/2008 8:59:57 AM , Rating: 3
The corn grown to produce the ethanol used in flex fuel vehicles and the like exist for that sole purpose, while the farms growing food-grade corn are not related.

That statement is not even partially true, and I don't know where you get your information, but before you say things like that, you need to educate yourself on corn production in general.

There are three distinct types of corn grown: sweet corn, dent corn, and popcorn; of those three, dent corn and sweet corn are the "food grade" corns, all of which have been selectively bred to produce a uniform color and size kernel.

Sweet corn has high sugar and low starch levels and is the kind we find still on the cob or cut to form fresh kernels for canned products, as well as used to produce corn sweeteners. Young sweet corn is more tender because the pericarp (outer seed covering) hasn't developed fully, but as the corn matures, it becomes thicker and some of the sugars are converted to starch. "White" corn is sweet corn harvested at a particularly immature level that has the highest levels of sugar and thinnest pericarp, where "yellow" corn is harvested at a later date and has a thicker, more developed pericarp. Sweet corn cannot be dried because the starch levels are not high enough to sustain the kernel's pericarp as it dries, and has a wrinkled, sunken appearance.

Dent corn refers to the food-grade corn that has lower sugar and higher starch levels, but with the same pericarp structure and endosperm on the end of the end of the kernel as sweet corn. The "dent" occurs as the endosperm dries and cannot sustain the structural integrity of the kernel, and falls off, creating a "dent" in the end. This is the corn that is dried and used in cereals, chips, meal, and animal feed.

Popcorn, like dent corn, has high starch levels and thus can be dried. But popcorn has a hard endosperm and a very tough pericarp.

Ethanol is made from food-grade corn, specifically dent corn. However, dent corn markets have skyrocketed specifically because of ethanol production. Since it it more economical to grow dent corn, sweet corn crops are then replaced by dent corn.

RE: First Post Ever
By KristopherKubicki on 1/14/2008 12:23:37 PM , Rating: 5
We omitted some of Lutz's interview for publication purposes. He brings up this point, and I'll include the omitted interview segment below:

Federal mandated guidelines for rates of adoption of ethanol pumps by gas stations is essential to the adoption of the technology, Lutz feels. Larger stations should be required to have 1 or 2 ethanol pumps he feels. This would eliminate the "chicken and egg" scenario he discussed where producers wouldn't produce since there was no place to sell, and oil companies refused to deploy pumps because no one was producing.

Lutz expressed frustrations about the oil companies efforts to stab ethanol in the back particularly during the formation of the new CAFE legislation. He points that oil companies successfully lobbied to remove pro-ethanol language from the bill and to scrap portions of the bill that would have rolled back oil tax cuts to help fund alternative energy development by firms such as Coskata. Change, Lutz believes must start with the auto industry, but it also must happen on the national level.

RE: First Post Ever
By SoCalBoomer on 1/14/2008 5:16:22 PM , Rating: 2
I looked into biodiesel for my truck but since there are no places to buy it within 50 miles or so (that I could find) I don't run it - and would really like to. Strangely, the number of places that sell biodiesel in the LA area are pretty sparse. . .

If we could get people to stock it, then I know that there would be more people who would buy it. Get the egg and I'll eat it! :D

RE: First Post Ever
By UNCjigga on 1/16/2008 1:44:07 PM , Rating: 2
Might have something to do with the fact that California has the toughest emissions requirements for diesel? Even though the fuel source may qualify it as a "flex fuel", the engines need to catch up.

That said, automakers are promising quite a few 50-state diesels over the next few years (I'm interested in Honda's new diesel.) I don't know if all of these can run biodiesel, but hopefully as the market increases you'll see more biodiesel options in California.

RE: First Post Ever
By ajfink on 1/14/2008 12:57:17 PM , Rating: 4
True, but Ethanol makes a very viable stopgap measure for vehicle fuels until the US can wean itself off of all forms of foreign energy (including imported oil for electricity production).

Ideally, Hydrogen and straight electricity produced in modern nuclear plants, hydroelectric dams, wind farms, etc. would account for a far greater portion of vehicle "fuel."

RE: First Post Ever
By mrteddyears on 1/14/2008 12:11:55 PM , Rating: 4
So are you saying that Turbo/Super charging my Cadillac V8 is necessary to save the environment?

I have been trying to convince the wife of this for a long-time.

Thanks DT you really are Gods among men

RE: First Post Ever
By masher2 on 1/14/2008 12:21:06 PM , Rating: 4
> "Saab’s Biopower vehicles achieve increased horsepower and torque without sacrificing fuel efficiency"

Oops-- read the fine print on that link. Those fuel efficiency were taken with regular gasoline.

Sorry, its just not possible to get equal milage with ethanol. It has about 35% less energy per gallon than gasoline. One can indeed design an engine around it that has substantially increased power (and even a slightly higher relative efficiency from higher compression), but you can't compensate for the lack of energy. All else being equal, MPG is going to decline.

That of course doesn't mean ethanol is worthless of course, but it is a factor that needs to be considered when comparing the two.

RE: First Post Ever
By ChronoReverse on 1/14/2008 12:43:53 PM , Rating: 2
Can pure ethanol engines achieve higher efficiency than gasoline engines? If they can (gasoline engines are very inefficient aren't they?) getting greater mileage is plausible.

RE: First Post Ever
By masher2 on 1/14/2008 12:55:15 PM , Rating: 2
All heat engines are inefficient. Large ultra-high temp coal plants are still under 50% efficiency...a gas engine usually is doing around 20% efficiency over its entire operating range.

An engine designed to run *only* on pure ethanol (rather than a flex-fuel vehicle) can raise compression (and thus temperatures) somewhat. Without doing any calculations, I'd guess it'd rise by maybe a couple of percent over a gas engine, certainly nowhere near enough to compensate for a 35% drop in fuel energy.

RE: First Post Ever
By Keeir on 1/14/2008 1:49:49 PM , Rating: 3
Most types of heat engines are very inefficient... but a heat engine's maximum efficieny (theorectical) is specificify by the laws of thermodynamics and Carnot (Cycle, Theorem, etc)

Its possible to design a real Enthanol Engine that is better than a real Gasoline Engine. But assuming the same amount of research and customization is invested in both fuel engine types, the gasoline engine should win in efficiency per liter each time.

RE: First Post Ever
By stickninja on 1/14/2008 1:08:01 PM , Rating: 2
Oops. Thanks for pointing that out. It's nice to know that marketing is more important than facts <sarcasm>. Still, I'd rather have the option of using ethanol, something we don't have much of today regarding fuel or energy choices.

It would also be a bit easier to transition to ethanol in terms of technical development/manufacturing and infrastructure than moving to an all-electric fleet.

Or we could all buy horses...

RE: First Post Ever
By Sahrin on 1/14/2008 12:21:56 PM , Rating: 3
The point isn't that ethanol as a fuel is bad/worse than gasoline; it's that it's perpetuating the core problem by sidestepping the pressure to change methodology. Combustion is not an efficient method of autolocomotion. It's just not, nothing against ethanol, gasoline, diesel or hampster-fuel; it's not the best way of moving people.

Ethanol may solve very big political and economic problems, but it massively perpetuates environmental, technological, economic (of a different stripe) and cultural ones - this is why it is a bad solution.

Ethanol is the "Soylent Green" of the fuel world.

RE: First Post Ever
By AlexWade on 1/14/2008 12:33:18 PM , Rating: 5
I knew it! Ethanol is made up of people!

RE: First Post Ever
By Durrr on 1/14/2008 12:40:45 PM , Rating: 2
Hell, it might be because it could potentially use human cadavers

RE: First Post Ever
By Clauzii on 1/16/2008 6:15:11 AM , Rating: 2
Sarcasm on.

"The demand for alchoholics will go up, since they contain more 'energy' than non-alcoholics!"

Sarcasm off.

RE: First Post Ever
By Eris23007 on 1/14/2008 4:47:18 PM , Rating: 1
Combustion is not an efficient method of autolocomotion. It's just not, nothing against ethanol, gasoline, diesel or hampster-fuel; it's not the best way of moving people.

From a perspective that views things solely from the perspective of the individual vehicle, that is a true statement. However, from the perspective of the entire system (that is, millions of people who all want/need autolocomotion), I believe the opposite is the truth, and that's exactly why it is such a market-dominant technology.

The reason I say this is primarily related to storage and distribution. Liquid fuel of the form used for combustion is efficient to transfer - in a pipeline or large tanker ship, there is very little energy lost in the transfer process, and as well, the distribution system is extremely well established. As for storage, it is essentially 100% efficient and very simple - just make a big metal tub and put it in. Cheap and effective.

The closest competitor, electricity, has significant issues - transmission line losses are significant over long distances (even at extremely high voltages and such), and as well transmission lines are politically very unpopular - just look at how difficult it has become for new transmission lines to be built (cf. Connecticut-Long Island or West Virginia - Virginia - DC). They are prime NIMBY targets, as are most power plants, whether nuc, coal, LNG, whatever. Even past the generation & transmission issue is the storage issue - unless you wish for vehicles to be constantly connected to the power grid (a MASSIVE systems challenge), you need batteries of some sort to store the energy and provide essentially instantaneous power, which as we've seen from countless examples in the technology business has its own challenges with efficiency, longevity, and even safety, not to mention long recharge times - people accept the need to stop for 10 minutes to refill their cars with gas. Are they going to accept the need to stop for 2+ hours to recharge their batteries when they run out?

Beyond centrally-generated electricity are hydrogen and other such presently-impractical technologies, each of which have their own attendant challenges - again mostly related to the distribution and storage issues.

These are not minor challenges - for example, hydrogen is a beast to keep contained, and must be under very high pressure. This requires very heavy tanks which, if they encountered large forces (such as in a car accident) could catastrophically fail (think zeppelin but much worse due to the pressure of the hydrogen gas inside). Beyond that, most hydrogen-oriented approaches focus on electricity generation via fuel cells, but fuel cells are best suited for "base" power, not "peak" power, so the previously mentioned electricity storage problem again becomes enormous.

This is not to suggest that an electricity-, hydrogen-, or other-fuel-focused solution is out of the question, but to suggest that we ignore one very strong potential solution (I dispute your contention that this would perpetuate environmental and technological problems) in the hopes that the risks associated with the "holy grail" solution can be ironed out strikes me as unwise.

RE: First Post Ever
By Sahrin on 1/14/2008 7:59:50 PM , Rating: 3
You took a good whack at me, and I appreciate that - but it seems like you ultimately fell into the same trap everyone seems to.

Ethanol isn't a solution to the transportation problem - it's a perpetuation of it. I'm not suggesting that we ignore it (Well, yes, I am, but that's my personal view and I believe in personal freedom and market economics - so I'll just not buy ethanol, and that'll be the extent of my protest).

My problem is with the perception that Ethanol is a solution to the "oil problem." It's not. It's just another kind of oil. It pollutes in roughly the same way as oil, and it ultimately will likely cost the same as oil (for pollution consider that the creation load is on the environment as well, not simply production as with oil). The fundamental problems with transportation are things that will require real honest-to-goodness breakthroughs. They will be incredibly difficult and expensive to achieve.

It seems to me that we would be best served by trying to address the challenges before us, boldly; rather than serving the short-term problem immediately.

Ethanol is fine as a fuel source, it should be developed, let it be developed; however let us also understand that they key is not ethanol; for ethanol perpetuates the problems that exist today. A new solution is required, and while I can't exactly predict what shape it will take - much like pornography, I will know it when I see it (and corn smut it ain't).

Some of your specific points don't make a lot of sense (loss due to transmission for instance - isn't it something like 87%-95% efficient?), but again, it's better to address those than it is to perpetuate the core problems of internal combustion.

RE: First Post Ever
By Hoser McMoose on 1/15/2008 3:09:52 PM , Rating: 2
(loss due to transmission for instance - isn't it something like 87%-95% efficient?)

Last numbers I saw were a few years old but they suggested the average transmission loss for electricity in the U.S. was 7%. This isn't something that should be ignored though, the U.S. electrical grid is far from top-notch at this point in time (though it's theoretically improved since the big blackout in 2003 cast light on the issue).

I can't find any numbers for the piping losses for oil and gasoline. My guess (and it's just that) is that it's probably in the 3-5% range.

RE: First Post Ever
By Hoser McMoose on 1/15/2008 2:28:11 PM , Rating: 2
The closest competitor, electricity, has significant issues - transmission line losses are significant over long distances (even at extremely high voltages and such), and as well transmission lines are politically very unpopular

Liquid fuel pipelines are also politically very unpopular and there are significant loses to pipe liquid fuel over long distances. It's most certainly not a clear-cut win for either solution over the other in this regard.

The two clear-cut losers here are ethanol and hydrogen, neither of which can be easily pumped through pipelines. They requires new, expensive and less efficient distribution.
They are prime NIMBY targets, as are most power plants,

Oil and gas refineries are even bigger NIMBY targets.
you need batteries of some sort to store the energy

And this is the number one challenge for electric vehicles in my mind. It's also why I think GM is taking the right road forward with the Volt. Charge the batteries when it's convenient (probably good for between 40 and 80% of all driving, depending on the individual), use the gas generator when it's not.

RE: First Post Ever
By Hoser McMoose on 1/15/2008 2:01:39 PM , Rating: 2
The point isn't that ethanol as a fuel is bad/worse than gasoline;

In terms of ethanol from corn I would argue that it IS worse then gasoline. Corn farming is very environmentally damaging and the massive subsidies (in excess of $10 BILLION per year and climbing!) are extremely poor fiscal policy.

I hold out a lot more hope for this cellulosic ethanol, though it's still a bit of a poor choice in my mind. Ethanol as a whole was a BAD choice in fuels and chosen only because we have a massive history of using the stuff. Ethanol is good for drinking, but butanol would have been a far superior fuel. Other less publicized biofuels might be better still.

RE: First Post Ever
By ElFenix on 1/14/2008 2:34:47 PM , Rating: 2
that's in imperial gallons, which are about 20% larger than US gallons. so about 31 MPG combined. and then there is the difference between UK and EPA estimates (not sure how that affects it).

still pretty good mileage, considering E85 doesn't have nearly the energy content of E10.

RE: First Post Ever
By ElFenix on 1/14/2008 2:38:02 PM , Rating: 2
oops, didn't see the fine print. pretty shady of them to put (e85) next to the figure and then, at the bottom, say efficiency is based on regular unleaded.

RE: First Post Ever
By Hoser McMoose on 1/15/2008 2:32:17 PM , Rating: 2
Just as a FWIW, the UK test is slightly 'easier' then the OLD EPA numbers. Compared to the new EPA figures I would guess the UK test would show at least 20-30% better fuel efficiency for the exact same vehicle and fuel.

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