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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 someguy743 on 1/14/2008 2:36:04 PM , Rating: 3
I think America's scientists and engineers should be working like crazy on BATTERY technological breakthroughs. Once they come up with the battery that can be charged up in 10 minutes or less and has a range of 400+ miles we will be when we no longer need to have fuels in the car at all ... not to burn in internal combustion engines OR used for fuel cells. All we'll need is electrons coming from the battery. Electrons are "the fuel" of the future we'll stop at service stations to buy.

The big question is .... WHEN are these new "super batteries" going to be invented? It's just a matter of time really.

The next big question is HOW do we get the electricity for doing all this quick charging of 100% electric cars. We are going to have to have some major breakthroughs in renewable electricity generation .... such as solar photovoltaic, wind, and solar thermal. Plus, we're probably going to need safer and cheaper fission nuclear energy.

To say the least it would be HUGE if scientists had some big breakthroughs on FUSION energy. Nothing like creating your own "mini-sun" to get your energy. Talk about a safe and inexhaustible source of energy! It's revolutionary if they can make the fusion power plants inexpensive. Fusion is very safe and you get the raw materials from places like seawater. The day the first super efficient fusion energy plant comes online is going to be as big a day as the day we stepped on the moon. It'll happen eventually. Humans are clever critters ... the extraterrestrial aliens will be very impressed with us.

Electric cars are clearly "the future". It's just a matter of WHEN. Scientists and engineers all over the world are going to have to work like crazy to make it happen. Let's face it the oil is not going to last much longer. It's going to keep going up in price probably especially as people from China and India start driving more and more. Plus, global warming really is a major concern. All these greenhouse gasses are clogging up Mother Nature's lungs and heating up the planet. We don't want her to get lung cancer and cause flooding, extreme weather and who knows what else.

I hope the development of electric cars becomes like the "space race" in the 60s. The students coming out of college have plenty of work to do. They'll be in demand ... especially electrical and chemical engineers ... all sorts of fields of science actually.

By s12033722 on 1/14/2008 6:15:35 PM , Rating: 2
Just out of curiosity, where do you get the idea that fusion is "very safe"? The last I heard, the incredible energy fluxes seen inside fusion reactors require replacement of the shielding fairly quickly as it breaks down. I am all for fusion research and energy production, but it still has a long way to go. So far the EROI of a fusion reactor hasn't broken 1, although that may change in the next decade. I hope it does.

Your point on all-electric cars is good, though. I would like to see more research in that direction.

By masher2 (blog) on 1/14/2008 6:35:45 PM , Rating: 2
Safe in the context that it cannot explode, melt down, and produces very little radioactive waste.

Of course, we already have a means to do this without requiring's called the "Rubbiatron", a generator which is essentially half fission reactor, half particle beam.

By PlasmaBomb on 1/15/2008 7:45:13 AM , Rating: 2
This design is entirely plausible with currently available technology, but requires more study before it can be declared both practical and economical.

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