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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: Great, even more ethanol BS
By Rugar on 1/14/2008 1:22:27 PM , Rating: 3
I'm skeptical of the reality of any cellulosic ethanol production. Not because the tech isn't possible, just that I've seen lots of claims with very little production so far. That being said, I'm not sure I agree with a couple of your arguments.

1) Cellulose is the most common organic compound on the planet and the one which is the most renewable of all the renewable sources of energy. The best example in the US is the often discussed switchgrass which requires no added fertilizer or water. Other sources for wetter areas include things like bamboo or even invasive weeds like kudzu or hydrilla. The entire concept of cellulosic production is that starch crops aren't necessary since energetically starch and ethanol are equal. In fact, the cellulose waste produced from food crop production could also be fed into the ethanol pipeline.

2) Industrial microbial processes (ie: fermenters) are extremely efficient. Whether the end product is hydrogen or ethanol, use of microbes are the best bet to do so in energetic terms. There are energetic costs, but these are relatively small. The article here states an ERoEI of 7.7. I'll take that, it's much better than current ethanol production (barely breaking 1, depending on who you believe). While it's not the crazy numbers I've seen for gasoline (100? 150?), an ERoEI of 7.7 would definitely be the best alternative fuel I've seen anyone publish.

Even if we dismiss environmental concerns/costs for petroleum production, petroleum products (including all fossil fuels if you like) are a finite resource and we are finally starting to realize that there is a bottom to the barrel. Barring the discovery of reliable fusion or major advances in battery tech in the near future, cellulosic ethanol is the most likely prospect for our near term fuel needs.


RE: Great, even more ethanol BS
By Rugar on 1/14/2008 1:30:27 PM , Rating: 2
Sigh.... Bad proof-reading on my part. Please change "...starch and ethanol are equal" to "...starch and cellulose are equal".


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