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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 1/16/2008 7:39:24 AM , Rating: 2
"So it’s exciting to hear that Stanford researchers have discovered a new type of battery using silicon nanowires which they say has 10x the life of today’s lithium-ion batteries ."

"The technology was developed through research led by Yi Cui, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, who worked with his graduate chemistry student Candace Chan and five others to create the new battery thanks to the wonders of nanotechnology, said that: " It's not a small improvement. It's a revolutionary development ”.

"On the issue of commercialising nanowire technology, Stanford researcher Yi Cui said that " Given the mature infrastructure behind silicon, this new technology can be pushed to real life quickly ", something he is considering through the formation of a company or by working with an existing battery manufacturer to quickly put nanowire batteries into production."

" The nanowire batteries could well be so good that such an additional generator is rendered unnecessary , but in the short term, despite ever higher petrol prices, the widespread availability of petrol in most of the western world is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, making the backup generator a great backup - at least for now."

"According to the Stanford article, the nanowire battery uses lithium “stored in a forest of tiny silicon nanowires, each with a diameter one-thousandth the thickness of a sheet of paper. The nanowires inflate four times their normal size as they soak up lithium. But, unlike other silicon shapes, they do not fracture” – and thus work to reliably store much more energy than ever before ."

"Without nanotechnology, this battery breakthrough would not have been possible, and while there are undoubtedly even better battery technologies yet to be invented that can store and deliver even more power, nanowire batteries look set to deliver the revolutionary leap in battery life the digital age has been so impatiently waiting for ."

" Let’s hope one or more of the major battery companies jump on this development and fast tracks the first true breakthrough in ultra long battery life in the small battery sizes we’re used to, forever changing and improving the way we store and use our portable power – please don’t let this technology end up somewhere on a shelf!"

By someguy743 on 1/16/2008 8:11:43 AM , Rating: 2
Check out this article from the Chevy Volt blog website. Way to go Dr. Cui! You are going to be famous and probably a very rich guy.

I bet GM and their battery suppliers A123 and LG Chem are going to aggressively try to get this new nanowire battery technology implemented in the new generation of cars pretty quick. The stakes are high. A lot of these new batteries will be sold in the next 10-20 years. It could be a HUGE industry ... a $100 billion+ industry maybe.

Trust me, this new nanowire battery breakthrough is going to freak out the fatcat Middle East oil sheiks and oil companies like Exxon/Mobil. They aren't going to be able to stop electric cars from taking over now!

Put a small hydrogen fuel cell or small internal combustion engine running on cellulosic ethanol in the car and you will have cars and trucks with incredible range. You might only need to recharge your batteries once every few weeks and fill up the tank with hydrogen or ethanol only a few times a YEAR when you need to take a long trip or whatever. The fuel cell or internal combustion engine will really just be a backup device like those Honda generators people use when power lines are down because of bad weather. This battery breakthrough is HUGE.

By Spuke on 1/16/2008 12:06:39 PM , Rating: 2
DT, we need an article about this so we can argue about how it won't work.

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