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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: What about coal?
By TomZ on 1/14/2008 5:17:37 PM , Rating: 3
Mining and burning coal has a long list of known environmental disadvantages:

So I think the reputation that coal has developed is pretty justified.

Obviously if we can avoid burning it, this would be better, but the current claim by the industry of "clean coal" is kind of a bad PR joke.

RE: What about coal?
By coal2be on 1/15/2008 11:20:26 AM , Rating: 2
Firstly, coal has been the backbone energy source
for the world since the Bronze age.

Like it or not.

Yes, the short term hazards are significant.
( by short term I mean the last hundred years )

New question: Why tear down an existing infrastructure
( one of the last American Industries ),
just to rebuild it when there`s no other choice?

Couldn`t the clean coal campaigne be a clumsy, short
sighted attempt by Industrialists to channel more money
into an inevitiable solution?

With the massive coal deposits in Colorado, America
could recapture some of the great things it sorely
needs in it`s economy once again.

Such as freedom from foreign oil
( and oil wars )...

RE: What about coal?
By dluther on 1/15/2008 3:19:46 PM , Rating: 2
You have absolutely no idea how much I detest doing this, but I'm siding with TomZ on this one.

"Clean coal" is a lot like saying "clean sh!t" -- while I'm sure it can be done, there are other alternatives that are more attractive; and even then I'm not all that sure the gains are worth the effort.

The things we have to do to coal to make it clean: afterburning, scrubbing, and catalyzing significantly reduce the energy output gained from burning coal when you factor in all the energy necessary to produce and perform those actions.

Yes, burning coal has been around since the bronze age. But technologically we've advanced very, very far since then everything else we do.

RE: What about coal?
By Hoser McMoose on 1/15/2008 3:41:39 PM , Rating: 2
"Clean coal" isn't.

Coal gasification is less dirty then conventional pulverized coal burning, but it is definitely not without series environmental and health concerns. In particular it mostly changes the waste stream from flue gas coming out the smoke stack to effluent in the waste water. An improvement for sure, but definitely not a "clean" technology, just a "less dirty" one.

Coal will inevitably play a role in America's (and the world's) energy mix, but in my mind it should be pushed to as much of a 'choice of last resort' as possible (well, maybe second last before oil shale).

RE: What about coal?
By coal2be on 1/15/2008 5:26:53 PM , Rating: 2
Well, all of what you say about coal is true,
unfortunately, if you study the game board
closely, it`s the only solution with a chance.

Nobody is talking about a way to make gasoline
from uranium.

ps I guess oil shale could also be used to make
fuel thru these new microbial processes? Coinciden-
tally, America has massive deposits of this as well.

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