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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 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.

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