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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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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."

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