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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 masher2 on 1/15/2008 12:28:05 PM , Rating: 2
> "fossil fuels will always remain inherently semi-efficient...the amount of energy required to extract them is high."

Again- I don't know where you're getting this information. Lifting costs for Saudi oil are a few cents/bbl. It's significantly higher for, say, oil from the Gulf of Mexico, but its still a tiny fraction of the energy received. The largest consumer by far is the refining process, particularly if heavy cracking or reforming is done, and even still its nowhere near the amount required to produce ethanol. It's not even on the same order of magnitude.

Seriously, Google is your friend here. Even a few minutes of intelligent browsing should convince you of this.

> "we have way too much garbage, etc for me to agree."

A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation will show you why "garbage" cannot solve our energy problems. I'll start you off. We consume some 20.7 M bbl/oil per day. That's over 125 trillion joules of energy/day.

Now-- using the caloric content of all food produced in the nation, and even assuming this process was 100% efficient and required no energy input, AND we don't even eat any of the food the nation produces-- demonstrate why we cannot possibly fill our needs with garbage (proof left as an exercise to the reader).

RE: Great, even more ethanol BS
By clovell on 1/15/2008 2:59:26 PM , Rating: 2
Masher, why are you only counting food in those calculations? I thought that this process could use a lot more than just food.

RE: Great, even more ethanol BS
By masher2 on 1/15/2008 3:48:10 PM , Rating: 2
The comment that started this all was that "sewage" (waste food) could solve our energy needs. My statement was simply to prove that incorrect, not to deny there may be other sources for this process.

RE: Great, even more ethanol BS
By clovell on 1/16/2008 12:33:27 PM , Rating: 2
XD - Ah, that makes sense.

RE: Great, even more ethanol BS
By inperfectdarkness on 1/16/2008 2:24:00 PM , Rating: 2
you're not counting other waste.

sewage alone can't fill all of our least not if you're using human waste alone.

however, look at how many hydrocarbons we trash every year. plastic bottle, old cd's, worn tires, etc. we not only have feces to use as feedstock...we have FORMER oil that was processed into various, now-used-up items.

in 1995, 151.9 MILLION tons of trash were disposed of (that's net trash...after excluding recyclables). well over 60% of that contained hydrocarbons (read: feedstock). (metals and glass accounted for a mere 15% of that).

now i'm no energy expert...but wessex water treats 480 MILLION litres of sewage per day.

it's fair to assume we produce, cumulatively, a lot more here in the U.S.

400,000 tons of trash & oh, let's say 1 million liters of sewage--PER DAY...hmmm....

maybe not enough to totally supplant oil...but damn close if it doesn't.

By inperfectdarkness on 1/17/2008 9:00:26 AM , Rating: 2
p.s. subtracting the 15% that's glass and metal, that's:

680 MILLION pounds of trash per day. in just organic materials.

680 M pounds of trash to create the energy in only 20 M barrels of oil.

PLUS the amount of sewage we generate each day.

i'm not seeing what's so impossible here.

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