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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 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...

"Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." -- Bill Gates

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